Before Ami James, Kat Von D, and reality TV, there was tattoo superstar Lyle Tuttle. Tattooing since 1949, Lyle rose to fame in the late '60s tattooing a predominantly female clientele and celebrities like Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, and Cher at his San Francisco studio. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the inside cover of Rolling Stone in the 1970s, an iconic image of modern tattooing. Despite criticism for being the tattoo media darling of his time, he is credited with presenting tattooing as an art form to the mainstream and promoting safe and hygienic industry practices. Tuttle officially retired around 1990 but continues to travel the tattoo convention circuit, often teaching seminars on machine building and lecturing on tattoo history. In this interview, he offers some history lessons, discusses fame, and muses on tattoo artists as contemporary witch doctors.
With your long and exciting history in tattooing, what do you consider one of the most significant landmarks in the art during your career?
Women's liberation. With more freedom, more women got tattooed. Back in the day, I was in more panties than a gynecologist--because women were getting their tattoos inside the bikini line, little rosebuds and butterflies.
What about female tattooists? In the documentary Covered, you said that when women would come into your studio wanting to be tattooers, you'd say: "Look, honey, you got the world's oldest profession tied up, now you want the second? Do me a favor and buzz off." How have your thoughts on women in tattooing changed since then?
Tattoo shops today are a lot kinder and gentler places than they used to be. In the past, tattoo artists worked in arcades, and it wasn't a good environment. Sometimes it was hard enough to protect yourself, let alone be the frontman for some woman. Women who were involved in tattooing at that time were generally married to a tattoo artist, so they worked together--there were a few man-and-wife teams. There was a woman who tattooed before WWII in the 1930s. Her name was Mildred Hull. She was on the Bowery in NYC and had a sign displaying that she was the only woman tattooist on the Bowery. She was very proud.
So you're saying that you were talking more about the environment of tattooing at the time?
Yes, the environment has changed. It's eco-friendly to women now! It's a pink world! And I think women in tattooing have been good for the industry.
Do you think that celebrities have also played a big role in the popularity of tattooing?
Oh yes, sure. I remember there was this one guy who was getting an armband--his arm was the size of an oak tree--and tattoos always hurt more on the inside of the arm than the outside. And when the tattoo got into the inside of the arm, the guy said, "When I get a hold of that Dennis Rodman, I'm going to kill him..." I thought that was pretty funny.
You've tattooed so many celebrities yourself. Cher, Peter Fonda, Janis Joplin...
The first day I went into work after Janis died, there was a girl waiting by the front door, and she wanted Janis's heart on her chest. A lot of people wanted the tattoos she had. I still get inquiries about her wristband, which I just freehanded from a piece of jewelry she had.
Tattooing celebrities also brought you notice, like being on the inside cover of Rolling Stone and even on their Christmas card. What was one of the best things that came of that?
Well, I'll tell you what wasn't: Fame and fortune don't necessarily walk hand in hand. You have to be smart enough to make the fortune from the fame. But I never was a money-grubber. The buck was never first and foremost to me. All my publicity, which was mostly from women I tattooed, started in the late '60s. 1970 was a bumper year for me, '71 even more so, and '72 was my heyday. I don't even know why you're talking to me now. I'm a has-been. But I guess that's better than being a never-was.
Has there ever been a backlash to your popularity?
Not really. There were some people I alienated because of my popularity. Today, I have guys coming up to me and saying, "I want to be as famous as you someday." And I say, "You ain't fucking good-looking enough!" [Laughs.] But tattooing has really been kind to me.
What do you think about today's popularity of tattooing?
It's too easy. Too accessible. Today, you see supplier catalogs in the tattoo shop waiting room. And the shops have become pussycats and hangouts for yuppies and other degenerates. These silly bastards are getting tattooed on the sides of their necks and getting their hands all marked up. When people start screwing around with their bodies, they keep looking for new avenues and then it gets into one-upmanship. How do you take a day off? These people can't take a day off unless they go to some blind farm. I'm not ashamed of my tattoos, but they are nobody's goddamn business.
Tell me about your first tattoo.
When I was growing up during WWII, many servicemen coming back from the war or on leave would have a tattoo dribbled on them, and boy, those were hot stuff to me, something everything teenage boy would admire--travel, adventure, romance. Tattoos to me were like stickers on my luggage. I just had to have one.
When did you get it?
In 1946. I went to San Francisco when I was 14 one day--I lived 120 miles north of San Francisco--but not to get a tattoo, just to see the big city. I passed by a shop and peeked in the door and the guy says to me, "What the hell do you want?" I said, "Umm," and pointed to a heart with "mother" because I could afford that one. I remember when I stepped over the threshold of that shop I had no idea where it was leading me. It was stepping into a time machine. It consumed my whole life.
I don't know. It was an atavistic tug. Atavism is a reversion to primitive nature. I believe in genetic remembrance. How many thousands of generations of cultures have had tattoos as an important part of their culture? Tattooing is the mother art. It's been around as long as anything else. Neanderthals could have tattooed; there's evidence of that in cave paintings. But the damn church got involved and destroyed everything they didn't agree with, so there's a gap in the record, but it dates back long before written history. Being a tattoo artist is the closest goddamn thing the general public has to a witch doctor they are ever going to get. We all suffer from the lost tribe syndrome.
When did you start tattooing?
Three years later I was tattooing professionally, in 1949. The designs we'd do in those days are what they now call "old school." At least they spell school correctly. Now there's "new skool" with a K. I'm coming out with a school, a style of my own called "old stool." We'll only use brown outlines.
You can come out of retirement for that!
Yeah. [Laughs.] It's funny because I come out of retirement a lot. Anywhere I'm at, I'm asked to do a free autograph tattoo. I've been doing it for 15 years or something. One guy came up to me and said, "I get so goddamn tired to roll over in the morning and see your name on my old lady." There are also people with my portrait tattooed on them that I've signed. What I got a bang out of is, one time, a woman got so mad at me, she went out and had my name laser removed. That's a real peacock feather in my hat!
Why was she mad?
She erroneously thought that I had said something about her at a convention. Someone must have told her a lie, which started off as me being drunk in a bar. I drink. I usually start around 12 noon, but I don't get drunk.
You mentioned conventions. I see that you're still going around the convention circuit a lot and teaching seminars.
I've been doing seminars on machine building for 10 years. I'm an amateur machine builder. I don't have a factory or anything. I build them for my entertainment. But I'd never thought that I'd be teaching anybody sitting in a classroom and divulging secrets. In the past, it would be unheard of.
But you have done a lot to preserve tattooing's past. Tell me about your museum collection. What are some of the highlights?
Well, for one, there's my Edison autographic printer. It was made for cutting perf [perforated] patterns. They punch all these holes in a piece of paper following a design to transfer the artwork, so it was used as a stencil to make copies. It wasn't invented as a tattoo machine, but it was the first electric handheld device with a reciprocating motion. You don't need much penetration to go through paper, but to tattoo a person, you have to have a much longer stroke. So in 1891, Samuel O'Reilly, an Irish tattoo artist who became well-known in New York, came up with the idea to increase the stroke to make it more powerful and penetrate the skin. He's credited as the inventor of the electric tattoo machine, but Edison really was. O'Reilly only made a modification of the autographic printer. That's the granddaddy of all tattoo machines even though it was not designed for it. Edison in all his stuffiness would probably have frowned upon tattoos.
A literary agent asked me once, "Why don't you write a book?" But something stuck in my head that I heard someone say: "To write is not to live because you're reliving." Why rekindle an old relationship when you [can] go out and make a half a dozen new ones? On Benjamin Franklin's [mock] epitaph--I don't remember the exact words--was something like, "Here lies Ben Franklin, like the cover of an old book with its pages torn out...the story will be written again in a greater and grander edition."
In your 80 years on this earth, what personal doctrine or ideology have you developed?
"No sweat." Don't ever sweat over anything and don't let anyone make you sweat. I have it tattooed on the back of my leg in kanji, but they couldn't translate "No Sweat" exactly so it reads "Perspiration No." I've been at Chinese places and pulled my pant leg up and they stare at it, beyond their comprehension. I'm actually just seeking to find one truth. If I find one, then maybe I will find the second one. Man is always looking for the secret. I'd like to know one goddamned truth before I die.
The latest issue of Inked magazine has one of the most favorite interviews I have ever done: a Q & A with the inimitable tattoo legend Spider Webb. I have interviewed Spider before, and every time, there's another fantastic story I have never heard before -- and I want our talks to go on for as long as he doesn't get bored with me, but then there's that limited magazine word count in which only the highlights get put into the article. With Spider, every word is a highlight.Spider Webb, born Joseph O'Sullivan, is considered one of the most important people in contemporary tattoo history. With more than 50 years in the industry, he has legitimized tattooing as an art form, helping to bring it into galleries, museums, and even Christie's auction house, where a tattoo by Spider Webb was deemed "priceless." He fought to legalize tattooing in New York City after it was banned in the '60s by tattooing on the steps of museums. He expanded what some viewed as the limitations of tattooing through his conceptual art pieces and tattoo performances. And he's done all this with humor, flair, and mischief. Spider Webb, who holds a master's degree in fine arts, continues to create art, tattoos, tattoo machines,and trouble at his tattoo museum in Charlotte, NC. You'll also find him at tattoo shows and galleries around the world.
So what I've done is taken an excerpt from the article and put it below. Following that, you can read more and get another crazy tale -- about grave robbing, porn star Annie Sprinkle and more -- which wasn't published.
Learn more about Spider at Spiderwebbtattoo.com.
From Inked magazine:
You've been bringing tattoo art into fine art galleries since the '70s. You're particularly known for your conceptual art pieces. How did that get started?
How it all happened was a girl was interviewing me for a magazine, and she said, "Spider, what are the limitations of tattooing?" Being a big fucking know-it-all, I said that it's the size of the human body; that's the limitation. Then after I saw the interview in print, I thought, What kind of bullshit is this? What limitations? We have to get rid of limitations. So I thought to use a whole bunch of people in X 1000. I tattooed one X on 1,000 people, with a big X on the last person made up of 999 Xs to complete a conceptual piece. ... Then I started to do the Tattoo Vampire. It's a conceptual piece with just two simple dots on your neck. I've been doing that act for 30 years all over the world, from Studio 54 to the sewers of Paris, in Gracie Mansion, and in museums and galleries. It's a great show because there's sex, blood, kiss- ing, and you get to live forever. It's a very beautiful performance. Then I thought to myself that what would be real cool is if I become cupid and just tattoo one dot. So it's the same as the vampire act except I use an arrow and I make one dot for love, usually on a girl, but on men too-- and there'll be the fake blood and a breast exposed. That's what every- one wants, and I give it to them.
What other conceptual pieces have you done?
Do you remember Pulsating Paula? She was one of the photographers when they first started tattoo magazines. She's a biker girl. She's great. I tattooed her clitoris one time with a monkey tooth I pulled out of an alligator's skull. She was one of the first people I did the cupid tattoo on. Now I'm thinking to myself, What am I going to do next? I know what I'll do. I'll become the Invisible Man. And that's what I did. So I started to do the Unwanted Tattoo. I would be invisible. I wouldn't even be there. The first fucking thing I did was I took my doorbell apart, and I took out the black piece that you push to ring the bell, and I put in a piece of an ink an and a thumb tack. Then the mailman of all people rings my bell and he tattoos his thumb. I said, "Oh shit, that's fucking cool." Then I started to make other ones. I made the unwanted tattoo toilet seat. Then I did the greatest one of all: the gas pump. A guy tattoos his hand when he squeezes the thing. A lot of these things I had to rig up a video camera because I don't want to be there when the guy or girl freaks out. They think they can wash it off but they can't. There's a lot of humor in tattooing--people who don't want it, not wanting what I'm giving that day. Isn't that cool? [Laughs.] Children laugh about 2,000 times a day, and most adults laugh about 40 or 50. People are so afraid. I think tattoos take a little bit of fear away. Makes them a little stronger.
Read more from the article here. Keep reading for an unpublished Spider story.
I've been called a Harpy. A pariah. A vampire sucking the soul of tattoo culture.
There are probably many other reasons for them, but often the context of such compliments are my writings on tattoo copyright.
During the legal circus surrounding the Mike Tyson tattoo in "The Hangover" film, which later settled between the tattooist and Warner Bros., I wrote about copyright particularly in light of this law suit.
I revisited this case in the March issue of Inked magazine, but also discussed further issues in tattoo copyright. Now that full article is available online for free. [For some reason, Inked decided to illustrate the article with tattooed boobs and butts, perhaps because they thought no one would read it.]
Entitled "Who Owns Your Tattoo?", the title and opening are intended to spark a bit of controversy. It starts off like this:
If you think that you alone have the rights to your own skin, you may be wrong. The idea of another person, or even a corporation, claiming ownership over your body may seem absurd, but as recent lawsuits for copyright infringement of tattoo art have implied, the courts could very well decide who gets a piece of you tomorrow.See what I mean? Harpy-like.
But beyond being controversial, there's serious talk about Fair Use, Work for Hire, Rights of Publicity, and Licensing. [In fact, licensing the artwork of tattooists has been a big part of my own legal practice lately.]
Check out the article and feel free to offer your thoughts via our Needles & Sins Group on Facebook or Twitter.
In the Dec./Jan. issue of Inked magazine, you'll find my Q&A with the inimitable Ed Hardy, a man who inspired fellow artists and tattoo collectors to move beyond the tattoo "menu" on shops walls and pursue custom, personalized art. For those outside the tattoo world, his name is associated with everything from trucker hats to condoms, and because of his Ed Hardy clothing line and merchandising deals, the Californian native was able to retire with a sizable nest egg and fully return to painting, ceramics, and other mediums after 40 years of tattooing. Of course, Hardy remains connected to tattooing, largely through his Tattoo City studio in San Francisco, Hardy Marks Publications, and the occasional tattoo souvenir for a lucky fan.
In this interview, Ed talks about the documentary "Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World" [recently released on DVD], the tattoo impulse, his fine art, and he briefly addresses the haters. Here's an excerpt:
Do you think the whole popularity of tattooing will dissipate?
It's interesting how the Ed Hardy brand and unexpected commodification of tattooing has freed you up to do fine art. It's seems at odds with commercialism in some way.Read more in Inked.
UPDATE: The full article can be found online here.
I had the true pleasure of interviewing American tattoo icon Lyle Tuttle for the September issue of Inked magazine, on newsstands now and available as a digital download.
Tattooing since 1949, Lyle rose to fame in the late sixties tattooing a predominantly female clientele and celebrities like Janice Joplin, Peter Fonda and Cher at his San Francisco studio. Despite criticism for being the tattooed media darling of his time, he is credited with presenting tattooing as an art form to the mainstream and promoting safe and hygienic industry practices. Lyle officially retired around 1990, but continues to travel the tattoo convention circuit, often teaching seminars on machine building and lecturing on tattoo history. In the interview, he offers some history lessons, discusses fame, and muses on tattoo artists as contemporary witch doctors. Here's a clip from our talk:
With your long and exciting history in tattooing, what do you consider one of the most significant landmarks in the art during your long career?
Women's liberation. With more freedom, more women got tattooed. Back in the day, I was in more panties than a gynecologist-because women were getting their tattoos inside the bikini line, little rosebuds and butterflies.
What about female tattooists? In the documentary "Covered" on women in tattoo, you said that when women would come into your studio wanting to be tattooers, you'd say: "Look honey, you got the world's oldest profession tied up, now you want the second. Do me a favor and buzz off." How have your thoughts on women in tattooing changed since then?
Tattoo shops today are a lot kinder and gentler places than they used to be. In the past, tattoo artists worked in arcades, and it wasn't a good environment. Sometimes it was hard enough to protect yourself, let alone be the front man for some woman. Women who were involved in tattooing at that time were generally married to a tattoo artist, so they worked together-there were a few man and wife teams. There was a woman who tattooed before WWII in the 1930s (she died in 1946 by her own hand). Her name was Mildred Hull. She was on the Bowery in NYC and had a sign displaying that she was the only woman tattooist on the Bowery. She was very proud.
So you're saying that you were talking more about the environment of tattooing at the time?
Yes, the environment has changed. It's eco-friendly to women now! It's a pink world! And I think women in tattooing have been good for the industry.
[Final question:]In your 80 years on this earth, what personal doctrine or ideology have you developed?
"No sweat." Don't ever sweat over anything and don't let anyone make you sweat. I have it tattooed on the back of my leg in Kanji, but they couldn't translate "No Sweat" exactly so it reads "Perspiration No." I've been at Chinese places and pulled my pant leg up and they stare at it, beyond their comprehension. I'm actually just seeking to find one truth. If I find one, then maybe I will find the second one. Man is always looking for the secret. I'd like to know one goddamned truth before I die.
Read the full article in Inked magazine
In the August issue of Inked Magazine, on newsstands now, I interview the tattooer's tattooer, Mike Rubendall of Kings Avenue. In our Q&A, we discuss the new Kings Ave on the legendary Bowery in NYC (also posted here), his grueling apprenticeship when he was 17, and what it's like tattooing a dead body. Here's a taste:
What is the tattoo that you've done that sticks out most in your memory?
Read more in the "Icon" section of Inked.
You can also follow Brian's own experience getting tattooed by Mike here on N+S.
Renowned tattooist Corey Miller (L.A. Ink) teamed up with veteran SoCal punkers Face To Face to design the album artwork for their latest release, Laugh Now, Laugh Later, which hits the shelves (and iTunes) today, May 17th. To celebrate this collaboration - and the band's NYC appearance tomorrow night at the Best Buy Theater - Inked Magazine and the crew at Kings Ave NYC are sponsoring an in-shop meet-and-greet and record-signing.
If you're in the NYC metro-area (and a fan of solid punk rock and fine-line artwork), be sure to stop by Kings Ave NYC tomorrow afternoon to grab a copy of the album and have it signed by Corey and the band. Attendees will also be eligible to win a pair of tickets for tomorrow night's concert!
Where: Kings Ave NYC, 188 Bowery (at Spring St), 2nd floor.
When: Wednesday, May 18th - 5pm
For the December/January issue of Inked magazine, I had the pleasure of interviewing tattoo artist, painter, and now sculptor BUGS, whose blend of cubism and art deco inspired tattoos have earned him international acclaim as an innovator in the industry. You can pick up a copy at local news sellers in the US & Canada or download the digital mag via Zinio. Here's a taste of our Q&A:
Because there's such a demand for your work, how do you keep things fresh and find new ideas to answer this demand?Read more in Inked. You can make an appointment with Bug's at The Tattoo Lounge in LA.
The April issue of Inked Mag is just out and it features my Icon profile of one of the godmothers of our tattoo generation: Madame Vyvyn Lazonga.
I was a bit star struck during our phone interview because she's not only one of the first female tattooers of the modern tattoo movement--being a part of pushing tattoos as a fine art--but she's also one of the first women of our times to be heavily (and beautifully) tattooed. Vyvyn has had sleeves by Ed Hardy before many of y'all were born. She's been an inspiration to me and it was wonderful chatting with her. Here's a taste of our talk:
How would you describe your own tattoo style?For more, pick up the April issue on newsstands or read it online at Zinio.
As Marisa and I attempt to caffeinate ourselves into recovery from last night's
Big thanks to everyone in attendance for such an amazing evening - especially those of you who bought a copy of Black Tattoo Art. Seriously. We love your money.
(Photo courtesy of drivenbyboredom.com - duh)
The Needles and Sins mantra of "keep your low-brow coverage held high" has been drilled into my earhole enough times that I think I've started chanting it in my sleep. It also would explain the pangs of guilt I experienced when I somehow found myself not only looking at cracked.com, but actually laughing at it, to boot.
And while I was ready to see the run-of-the-mill "tattoos are for idiots" sentiment on their tattoo topic page, I mustered quite a few giggles at their "insights," especially this butcher's-chart for the tattooed human form.
[photo courtesy of Cracked.com]
After all, can I make judgements about a website that sounds just as misanthropic as my general view of humanity? Case in point:
Tattoos theoretically could be thoughtful additions to your appearance. Unfortunately there are thousands of tattoo parlors (many open 24 hours) and people just don't have that many thoughts. So most [tattoos] are stupid.
Some people love their stupid tattoos, in fact some people claim that everyone should have at least one. I can't argue with that sentiment, but I would like to point out that for a lot of people, its often its the first and final tattoo.
Cracked's stance on band logo tattoos ("I have no independent personality or understanding of the passage of time"), revolves around something which I've milled over and mulched in my brain for far longer than I probably should have.
While it's a pretty safe bet that your affinity for the bands you loved during puberty will never wane (in my case, groups like Pixies, Sonic Youth, Operation Ivy), I can safely assert that I don't personally need to immortalize that lifelong allegiance with a dermal decoration. Secondly, it's also almost entirely a safe bet that the band you love RIGHT NOW will either break-up or, worse, totally shift stylistic directions leaving you pining for their "first few albums" and a laser removal center.
Or in the words of the guys at C-Rap.com and their funny (if hastily penned) piece on tattoos in the hardcore community
I know that Slipknot piece must've looked fresh when you were going sick in the pit for them at Ozzfest, but one day they will inevitably put out a record you'll be describing as a sellout, and you'll be looking to burn that shit off with a hot hanger.
And speaking of "burning," I've loved Clutch since I first saw that Lay-Z-Boys vs. Monster-Trucks video way back when on Headbanger's Ball. I also loved the Burning Beard video. And hot diggity dagnabbit, Sean Young did a mean portrait inspired by it (pictured left).
But in the words of Ryan Dowd, the (tattooed) die-hard Clutch fan from Dogs of Winter, "I love the man, but I really don't think I need Neil Fallon's face on me."
Words made all the more prescient considering that the latest offering from Clutch, Strange Cousins From The West is good... it's just not, um... great.
Even Rob Zombie (no stranger to ink, himself) told Inked Magazine: "I have seen hundreds and hundreds of tattoos of my face on people. Sometimes that is actually quite shocking - how large they are. I'm like, 'Really? You want someone else's face that's actually larger than your own face on your body?' But it is what it is, I guess. It's flattering, but it's pretty extreme."
Listen to Mr. Zombie, kids. He knows what's good for you.