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Dan

Rest in Peace Lyle ! Legend is an understatement

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I know I am late with this post, but I wrote my own thoughts about Lyle back when he passed away, but never got around to posting them.

I think it is fair to say that Lyle Tuttle was absolutely the pivotal character in bringing tattooing to a wider population. I believe there is a direct unbroken line between Tuttle tattooing Janis Joplin in 1970, and the popularity and mainstreaming of tattooing that we see today. The fact that this website exists, where people of all backgrounds are sharing their enthusiasm about tattooing is a testament to the movement that Tuttle set in motion.

I was 18 when I read about Tuttle tattooing Joplin in Rolling Stone. It stoked my interest in tattooing, and I have followed it closely ever since. My girlfriend (now wife) and I – two good, normal clean scrubbed middle class kids – got tattoos a couple of years later because Tuttle made it seem accessible and appealing.

Tuttle’s tattooing of Joplin generated interest by newspapers and magazines, probably in part because a woman getting a tattoo was something virtually unheard-of at that time, so articles exploiting that angle attracted readers. Nevertheless, Tuttle was quoted or referred to in almost every single one of those articles, and amazingly became the subject of a feature in in a 1972 issue of Life magazine, the most popular family publication in America at the time. He was quotable, said things in a humorous way. He was just outrageous enough to be interesting, but cleaned-up enough to be suitable for mainstream consumption. He was a character.

I have read that Tuttle was somewhat controversial among some old time tattooers, some of whom viewed him as a shameless self-promoter, and resented the popularity of tattooing that he fueled, feeling that it ruined tattooing, taking away its outlaw cachet. That is a topic for another discussion, but suffice to say that Tuttle was the straw that stirred the drink.

I have often wondered if the popularity of tattooing would have grown as it has – or would have grown at all – if another artist had tattooed Janis Joplin.

I can easily imagine a different, more crusty tattooer at that time being interviewed after tattooing her, and saying something like, “F_ck ‘em. They want a tattoo, so I give it to them, and they pay me. Chicks, guys, I don’t care. Just so they pay me. But all these goddam hippie chicks really have no f_cking business getting tattooed. They don’t know what tattooing is about.”

His quote might have made it into Rolling Stone, but would have done little to make a more conventional clientele feel good about tattooing. I doubt that he would have been widely quoted in other magazines and newspapers, and he certainly would have never made it into Life magazine. He probably would have done nothing to promote the industry to a new clientele. He would have reinforced the same decades-old perceptions of tattooing as a gritty, outsider practice carried out by outlaws on outlaws.


in a sense Tuttle was precisely the right guy, in the right place, at the right time. Part showman, part salesman, part promoter. He had one foot firmly in the traditions of tattooing, and the other in the counterculture that evolved in the 1960s and 70s.  I suspect that many of us on these forums would have never gotten tattooed were it not for the wheels that Tuttle set in motion nearly fifty years ago, and the tattoo landscape of today would been much different without him.

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