Lyle Tuttle October 7, 1931 – March 25, 2019
Lyle Tuttle passed away recently at the age of 87. Known as the father of modern tattooing, he got his first tattoo in 1945. (A heart with “mom” in it, if you are wondering.) Doing the math, that means he was inked for 73 years. Yeah, longer than some people are alive, this dude rocked ink.
Lyle’s story has a lot of numbers in it: He tattooed people on how many continents? 7. He himself got tattooed on how many continents? 6. Number of names he had for the people he work on? 4 (patients, clients, victims, canvases). Number of tattoo machines in his collection? Over 800. Rolling Stone covers his face was on: 1 (Sailor Jerry put that cover in his toilet, but that’s a tale for another time). Fucks given throughout his time on earth? Zero.
About that. Just because he had the balls at age 14 to get some flash tattooed on his forearm, just because he was, depending on your POV, either a “shameless self-promoter” or a genius at getting noticed, doesn’t mean he wasn’t disciplined. He was known for being punctual. In fact, he once said “I’ve fired more people for opening late and closing early more than anything (besides people stealing and lying).”
He was also pretty damn smart, despite not finishing high school (due to, he said, having “tattoo static in [his] head.”). His outlook on the industry and the people who benefit from it was always insightful. He said,
“Tattooing has many facets, it’s like a diamond. You can’t see the facets from one view. You have to see it from all different angles. There is no formula to it. People get tattooed for different reasons. For some people, it’s a mild rebellion. There is the peer pressure element. The word ‘chickenshit’ has probably caused more people to get tattooed than any other reason. For some, it’s a form of finding their lost tribal ancestry, so sometimes there is a cultural wave that causes a boom. Tattooing has changed radically over the years. Sterilization is much more important now. Anytime an industry blossoms, it gets a higher profile and scrutiny so everybody has to change with the times. I mean, we used to work with sponge and buckets a long time ago. There just wasn’t as many diseases floating around back then. That’s a whole other side of the industry. The human race has been doubling and tripling at an astronomical rate since the dawn of recorded history. The rate of human population growth has steadily increased to the point that it only takes a fraction of the time it once took to double the population. Think about all that new skin and think about all that new skin that is just turning eighteen. The possibilities for tattooing are limitless and there is more skin getting made every day.”
He wouldn’t use the words about himself, but “innovator,” “role model,” and “bad ass for the ages” are fitting descriptions of Lyle’s long tenure as a tattoo trailblazer. He saw, did, traveled, laughed and created – a lot. He inspired, pissed off, motivated, infuriate, entertained and intrigued people – a lot. He learned from his mistakes but never apologized for being himself. He wore ink as a badge of honor and a fact of life. He tattooed as a craftsman, an artisan and an artist. He left the world a better and more interesting place.
Be like Lyle.