Lyle Tuttle Interview, September 2007

Lyle Tuttle is a legend. So what do you do when he comes to town as a celebrity guest judge for the Crossroads Tattoo Contest? You buy some drinks and listen to his awesome stories, that's what! caught up with Lyle during the 2007 Thunder in the Rockies event in Loveland, Colorado. Ray Reasoner, one of our talented artists, also sat in with us. Here's what Lyle had to say...

Lyle Tuttle at Thunder in the Rockies 2007

Lyle Tuttle at the 2007 Thunder in the Rockies event So welcome back to Colorado!

Lyle: Thank you! When was the last time you were out here?

Lyle: Well Mr. Scary did a tattoo convention here. I can’t tell you exactly when, but last year or so... I was here then. And I actually have some cousins around here. So I’ve been here before! It’s a great place to be!

Lyle: It’s not the best place... I gotta stick up for California and say that you know! [laughter] So what influenced you to start tattooing?

Lyle: It’s a long story. Do we have time? We have all the time in the world!

Lyle: Well, I was 10 years old when World War II started. Guys would come home from the war with a tattoo here and there, and I would see them. They were hot shit! Tattoos always meant something like romance, or travel. Then when I was 14 I wound up getting one and that was it. I was hooked! It was like smoking crack! Not that you should smoke crack, but it’s very similar. [laughter from everyone] To go along with that, what influenced you to start drawing tattoo flash? Did that kind of come along with tattooing or is that something you started before that

Lyle: Well tattoo flash is a sales thing. It’s something you put in a book, or you put on a wall. Nowadays so many talented artists come into the tattoo community and peoples’ tastes have sort of elevated since tattooing in my day. I did all my own flash you know, and had it up on the wall. It was like a piece of a production line. Now it’s like custom work. You have to go into a tattoo shop and the tattoo artist has to read your ambiance and your aura!

Ray: What was it like working on the Pike?

Lyle: It was a zoo. A circus... it was a circus! It was like a circus side-show. I thought that Pike was in retrograde, I thought it was dying out when I was there. I was there in the heyday! The street I tattooed on continued on towards the waterfront on Pike. You had the Cyclone Racer, that was the rollercoaster. So, how can you lose? So you mentioned your first tattoo, what is your actual first tattoo?

Lyle: [Pulls up the sleeve of his shirt on his right arm and points to the top of his forearm] Right there. It’s a heart with “mother” in it. I found out when I went to the city when I was 14 years old, that there was just a couple things that a 14 year old kid could do. One of them was buy a Coca Cola or get your shoes shined... and then you also kept in sight the bus station you arrived on because you wanted to get out of town. We got lost in the big city! So anyhow, I ran across a tattoo shop. I just stuck my head in there and the guy said, “What the hell do you want?” And I went, “Uh... Uh... That!” [points to the wall] So it worked out well – I didn’t get my ass beat!

Lyle Tuttle showing off some of his tattoos at Thunder in the Rockies 2007

Lyle Tuttle showing off his ink! You have tattooed some extremely famous people, including Janis Joplin and Cher...

Lyle: [jokes] Adolf Hitler, Jesus Christ... [Laughter from everyone] So out of all of those, who was your favorite to tattoo?

Lyle: That’s a tough one. It is! I tried to make everybody’s tattoo experience a pleasant experience. So if you help make somebody else have a pleasant experience, it’s going to be a pleasant experience for you. You don’t say, “Hey asshole, what do you want?” when they walk through the door! To go along with that, you were on the Late Show with Johnny Carson back in the day. What was that like? How was it being on the show with him?

Lyle: Wonderful! How can you explain it any other way? I always say I’m a product of time. I was the right guy at the right place at the right time. When the separation popped in, one half of the human race was opened up to tattooing... I mean tattooing and Harley Davidson always went hand in hand... So to go along with Harleys and Bikes, how do you feel being at a convention that’s more geared towards bikers and the whole motorcycle industry as opposed to just strictly a tattoo convention? Do you prefer one over the other? Or do you enjoy doing both?

Lyle: This is a rarity for me. I usually stay with tattoo shows that are done by tattoo people. But we don’t need excuses to be here. We’ve rained supreme all weekend! One little corner over here, but we stood above them all! Do you ride bikes or anything?

Lyle: I did. Do you still?

Lyle: Not normally.

Ray: You’re still doing seminars, right?

Lyle: Tomorrow in Ft. Collins, on maintenance and fine tuning, how to make more use of your shop time. The second one is about building tattoo machines. Not going into supply business or anything. I’m talking about when you build a piece of equipment that you make a living off of. I go into ways of building your own tattooing company. You worked with the San Fransisco Department of Health with creating more modern techniques for sterilization with tattooing and tattoo machines. What inspired you to do that?

Lyle: Self defense! You can’t beat city hall, but you don’t go doo-doo on the steps either. People who are into tattooing are dedicated people. They dedicated themselves! So with sterilization it was the same thing. When I started tattooing it was a sponge and buckets. Then in 1960 New York City outlawed it [tattooing]. New York City had no health regulations and all of a sudden it was a little bit of a health problem where tattooing was connected. At a later date it was proven that tattooing was totally innocent but by then they had overreacted. Because the human animal never reacts, they always overreact. So New York is way out there, and I’m way out in Frisco. It could have been a domino effect! So we had to evaluate what we were doing and prepare for it. Come up to modern times. And I guess that’s what we did. There were no tattoo magazines, there wasn’t such a thing as the internet – the internet... what would they have called the internet way back then? [laughter]

But anyhow, if you had a tattoo friend it was generally on the other side of the world because tattooing wasn’t that popular. There wasn’t that much clientele or business or drunken sailors or whatever. So you loved what you did and you didn’t want to be put out of business so we had to come up with modern times. It was all on a solo basis. Then there got to be a little interchange, because in 1976 there was the first really big gathering that was advertised for tattoo people in Houston, Texas. That set up a communication link and spawned one tattoo magazine. From there, I guess it spread like human animals! There has obviously been a lot of advances in tattoo equipment along with standardizations of sterilization and so forth. Would you agree that equipment is a part of that or do you think it’s more important for a shop to be conscientious of sterilization and safety?

Lyle Tuttle tattooing his signature on Main Street Tattoo artist Sober Dave at Thunder in the Rockies 2007

Lyle Tuttle tattooing his famous signature on Sober Dave

Lyle: First of all, the clientele has changed in tattooing. When I started tattooing it was predominantly servicemen, and you would maybe tattoo a woman out of a couple hundred males, patients, clients, victims, whatever you call them. Canvases – that’s another one!

Any advice I ever give a young guy or young lady that wants to get into tattooing, I say first of all, you got to go out and learn about sterilization. Back when I had started tattooing we did work with sponge and buckets but there were no great epidemics or anything. But then that town would have one tattoo shop in it with such-and-such population, and now that has multiplied by 10, 15, 20 percent in areas! We were like the microcosms around the United States. Now I hear that from here to Colorado Springs is like one town! But that’s the first thing a person should concentrate on because you have to protect yourself also. You’re not tattooing Snow White and the seven dwarfs! So it’s a round robin affair. Sterilization is the most important thing. The tattoo equipment itself has not changed that much. Modern tattoo machines are all almost exactly alike except they look different. It’s the most unique invention ever. I don’t see anytime in the world that it’s going to be replaced because it’s perfection.

Ray: Have you ever seen the original Edison design for the stencil maker?

Lyle: I’m fortunate enough to own one. I only know of five of them that are out there. There might only be four. Let’s say four. But that wasn’t invented as a tattoo machine. It was like for perf-paddles. When electricity came around they tried to electrify everything. So you know what a perf-wheel is, which is what sign painters used. It has got the little needles on it. How the hell are you going to improve that? They tried to electrify it (Edison did it.) It was a crude electric motor. But it was way too short to tattoo with. It wouldn’t penetrate deep enough. So in 1892 maybe or 1893 – I forget the exact date – A guy named Samuel O’Reilly made a modification to the Edison machine (which the patent had run out) and used an offset cam-arm that lengthened the stroker of the tattoo machine. I’ve only seen one picture with a guy with one of those in his hand. The tube he embedded had on the top of the patent “No Model Submitted” so it might have been an idea from back then. But it was a viable idea! As far as tattooing, did you ever receive any criticism for more or less bringing tattooing into the mainstream?

Lyle: I’m probably my own worst critic. Somebody comes up and says, “Nice to meet you... You’ve influenced my life” and I say, “I bet your mother hates me!” But then they say, “No!” Because maybe I saved their life if they discovered tattooing if they read about it or something. I have had more covering in magazines – Like I said, I’m a product of time! The minutes that it happened, everything sort of zoomed in on Frisco. I just made all the big publications. So people saw that, and it influenced their life!

When I first got introduced to tattooing there were maybe 1, 2, or 3 tattoo artists in a big city. They were generally sea ports or something. Everybody sort of knew about each other from word of mouth, through customers. Like sailors and things. So it had like a smaller affair to it that it doesn’t have to me today. I’ve been so crude a couple times saying that I thought it was a finger down the throat. But not really, because I love tattooing and I’ve seen several times where it was being outlawed in cities and states and now it’s alive and well. So how could I feel bad?

Ray: What do you think about organizations like the P.R.T.R.C. (Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center)?

Lyle: I have the world’s largest collection of tattooing artifacts. So any effort that’s outside of my effort... What am I going to think about that? I just love every aspect of tattooing. I got into building tattoo machines, drawing tattoo flash... You were like a whole ball of wax.

Ray: Self-sufficient.

Lyle: Exactly. And I love that history. Because those old tattoo artists, some of them traveled with carnivals, they traveled in trains and in cars and trucks, and wandered all over the country... a tough life, you know? The circus sideshow had the tattooed man, or the tattooed woman, or the tattooed dog and the tattooed cat... the tattooed something!

So when I got all jazzed on tattooing, when I was like 14, I got my first tattoo, and I’ve sort of been focused on it ever since. But there were these old guys that sort of built their own equipment. They were all older guys... I won’t say they were rebels, but they were independent son-of-a-bitches! They had a niche! And that’s what you want – is a niche. Something you can just slide up into and hang on and prosper from. They were my heroes! But then there was nothing reported about tattooing. So I started collecting stuff, and it was for my own personal enjoyment. And then I sort of started seeing a focus on museums, so then I started collecting in a serious way.

Ray: You must have piles of tattoo machines...

Lyle: I have over 800. I should go through them someday! I’m upgrading my collection because after you get so many machines they’re redundant. So I have a showcase that has every production tattoo machine, that was a tattoo machine... Percy Waters - every model he has had, Charlie Wagner – his two models. J.F. Barber made tattoo machines at the turn of the century... There have been more tattoo machines built in Detroit, Michigan (this was up until the modern era). Now Huck Spaulding is King-Kong next to me! I know at one time he had 450 tattoo machines. The Wall Street Journal had an article one time that said that tattoo shops were opening up at a faster rate than Mexican restaurants. I’m partial to Chinese food myself! So you’ve traveled all over the world, what are some of your favorite places to visit?

Lyle: Ft. Collins, Colorado! [laughter from everyone] Awesome!

Lyle: I’ve had a good time here this weekend! I just got back from China 2 weeks ago... We heard about that. Ray was actually telling us that you had traveled over there...

Lyle: You know, at my age your long term memory is not good... we work on short term. I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast in 1919, but I can tell you what I had for lunch today! But I’ve had a pleasant weekend! Thank you! You and your organization! Thanks!

Lyle: What is your organization? [laughter from everyone] So who were and are some of your biggest influences? Tattooing or just in general?

Lyle: Well that’s a hell of a question! We've got all the heavy ones!

Lyle: Everybody has a made a contribution that has ever lived here. Some of them just got a little more publicity or were in a few more magazines. You know, I was in the Korean War in the Marines. Holding a war is like having intercourse for virginity. It’s stupid! And of all the bad times I went through in Korea, was for naught! What the hell did I go over there and do that for? So anybody that’s of peaceful nature, and there are politics and differences of opinions...
Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin… Anybody that has a milder approach to life, and isn’t standing up and saying, “Hey asshole!” Do you have any hidden talents? Over all of these years, have you acquired any crazy things that you can do?

Lyle: Well I’ll ask you this, is this for HBO? [laughter from everyone] I consider myself a craftsman. If you draw a picture, it’s craft because you’re drawing something you’ve absorbed from somewhere else. Tattooing just sort of offered all of these avenues to explore – Machine building, drawing flash, tattooing, dealing with people! That’s an art! It is in a shop. I go to tattoo shops all the time and there are people that I’d like to tell them, “God, what are you doing?!” Customers will come in and they won’t even say hello to them! I’ll call some guy and the dumb bastard doesn’t have an answering machine! But there are just things that you do. If it says 12 o’clock on the door you better be open at 12 noon. If it says open til 10 o’clock at night you close at 10 o’clock. I’ve fired more people for opening late and closing early more than anything besides people stealing and lying to me. When women could get tattooed that really opened up tattooing and is one of the big factors in bringing it mainstream and so forth. It’s funny, on we actually suspect most of our customers are women. Do you think there are pretty big differences between men and women and getting tattooed? There are arguably big differences in many ways between them...

Lyle: Exactly! But when it comes to tattooing and getting tattooed, do you think we’re all coming from the same angle?

Lyle: A tattoo is more than a pretty picture on the skin. It’s external recreations for internal feelings. Women and men are as different as day and night. Someone wrote a book called “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus.” I was going to write one called “Men are From Mars, Women are From Planet Whoopdeedoo!” But I love women, don’t get me wrong! Women are always a little bit nervous when they come in to get tattooed. Everybody gets nervous, but guys, we’ve got that macho thing going.

Back in the old days, a woman was generally influenced by a man to get tattooed, and he’d get his and say, “Oh honey, I got your name on my arm, it hurt, oh god it was terrible!” So she sits in the chair to get his name on her and says, “What the hell are you talking about?” But I’ve heard 2 different answers on that. Women are built to have babies, and don’t sense any pain. But I didn’t say that, I’m only passing it along folks! I don’t make this stuff up!

See more pictures of Lyle Tuttle at the 2007 Thunder in the Rockies event!