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Spirit & Place: Tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle


Lyle Tuttle lives today in his childhood home in Ukiah, a scenic and peaceful burg in Northern California’s Mendocino County. Between the bookends of his Ukiah years, Tuttle spent a whirlwind four decades as a tattoo artist in San Francisco, beginning his career in anonymity but ultimately soaring to celebrity status, inking the likes of Cher and Janis Joplin, his tattooed body and storytelling talent gaining him favor with the media, highlighted by a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Tuttle is on his way to Indianapolis, where, on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., he’ll appear at the IMA to converse with local tattoo artist Dave Sloan. The event is part of this year’s Spirit & Place Festival. Before arriving in Indy, Tuttle took some time to chat with NUVO about his remarkable life and career.

NUVO: You grew up in Ukiah, a quiet, seemingly idyllic Northern California town along Highway 101. How did you end up in San Francisco?

Tuttle: I went down to the big city because they had after hours clubs and a little faster-paced ladies than they have up here in the Redwoods. I knew there was some chicanery going on down there. I was about eight years old in 1939 when the World’s Fair was happening over on Treasure Island. And my folks took me down there. Well, I looked across the bay and saw all those bright lights and tall buildings and, whoopee, I couldn’t wait to get down there.

NUVO: What drew you back to Ukiah and your childhood home?

Tuttle: My parents continued living here. And I’m an only child. You have a lot more responsibility to your parents when you don’t have siblings. And I liked my parents. So I’d always come up here. Bring my kids up to see their grandparents. My mother just passed away quickly, and my father a year and a half later. And I was up here all the time helping my dad, giving him moral support. He was really lonely once my mother was gone.

NUVO: Is there anything you miss about San Francisco?

Tuttle: No. You know, you couldn’t have tied me to a Redwood tree up here and kept me here when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. These servicemen come back with those tattoos. They’d been out of Ukiah. They’d at least been to San Francisco. And I was the same way. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I was enamored with all big cities. Now I try to drive around them. You drive around the block 20 times just looking for a parking space. It’s inhospitable.

Tuttle's San Francisco tattooing shop
  • Tuttle's San Francisco tattooing shop

NUVO: But the city was very good to you.

Tuttle: San Francisco has changed from the one I remember. In 1960 I opened a shop that I stayed in for 29 years. It was next to the Greyhound bus station. You know, bus stations aren’t the greatest area of a city. But a tattoo shop, a lot of people get tattoos on a hunch. It’s not a long, planned-out thing. And if you’re in a high-traffic area, you’re going to have good business. When I first moved in, I used to say I was next to the bus station on my business cards. After 25 years or so, and I was getting all this thunder from the press and everything, with women’s liberation and tattooing so many women, I’d joke that the Greyhound bus station now has on its business card that it’s next to Lyle Tuttle Tattooing.

NUVO: You were something of a tattooist of the stars, with a client list that included Cher, Peter Fonda and Janis Joplin. You tattooed Joplin at the height of her popularity, not long before her death. What was that experience like?

Tuttle: I saw her the night before on television. Haight-Ashbury was going on. That whole explosion, it was in full swing at that time. And she just returned from South America. First thing, she came roaring through the door, and she had two big Samoyed dogs. And they were in the lead. I wound up chewing out this hippie chick for bringing her dogs in. I said to her, “Would you bring your dogs to the dentist?” But then I put two and two together and figured out who it was, and I went about my business. She gave me my opinion of Capricorn women.

NUVO: Which is what?

Tuttle: Capricorn women are the ball-busters of the universe. But they don’t take tattoos well. She went downstairs to a bar to have a drink between the two tattoos, which were a bracelet on her wrist and a heart on her breast. She tossed a couple back and freaked out the clientele. They talked about her visit to that bar for months. But she was a good gal. She probably did more for tattooing than anyone.


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