Tuttle tells me he’s covered up a lot of scars. He once put a rocket on top of the plume of a client whose chest had been opened up. When I ask Tuttle if he’s ever tattooed animals, his eyes light up, and he says, “I have!” He shows me a picture of Chadwick, his beloved English Bull Terrier dog. Like Tuttle’s first tattoo, Chadwick has a heart with “Mother” on his inner leg. “If you look at the website, ‘What happened in tattoo history on this day,’ it says, ‘On Nov 10, 1967, Chadwick was born.’” Tuttle continues, “One of the reasons I tattooed him was, well, he needed a tattoo. He was my buddy.” Chadwick’s obituary was published in Rolling Stone Magazine.
Tuttle endeavored to make tattooing, and tattoos, worthy of respect and admiration. He helped bring authenticity to the art of tattooing. Tuttle says that he was once classified as a pop artist. He was dubbed the “Frisco Flyer,” for his speed and efficiency. He built a tattoo machine to commemorate this nickname, with wings and an eagle’s head.
After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Seventh Street tattoo shop was yellow-tagged as uninhabitable. The Lyle Tuttle Tattoo Studio and Museum moved to the North Beach location at 841 Columbus Avenue, where it still stands today. It is marked with a neon sign of his signature.
One of Tuttle’s proudest achievements was the “Lyle Tuttle: 70 Years in Tattooing Retrospective Exhibit” at the Palace of Fine Arts in September 2018. The exhibit displayed Tuttle’s tattoo art collection, encompassing seven decades of his work. Many world famous tattoo artists and photographers attended to celebrate Lyle the Legend. Attendees lined up for tattoos of Tuttle’s signature, the only art he was willing to ink in the later years of his retirement.
Dr. Fukushi, a pathologist at the Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University, was also in attendance. Dr. Fukushi removes full body tattooed human skin off of donated bodies to preserve the skin. Tuttle was measured by the doctor to donate his bodysuit to the doctor’s institute in Japan where it would be stretched and stored in a glass case for viewing. Tuttle later changed his mind.
According to Tuttle, as tattooing became mainstream, it went from a compulsion to a fad. Tuttle says that people have gone crazy getting tattoos for the last ten years. “But, how long do those fads and trends last?” he asks. “Tattooing became more and more popular as time wore on, but it’s going to fall on hard times soon,” he says. Tuttle’s advice? “Don’t get one.” But, Tuttle readily admits that this advice is bad PR for him.
Five hours, a few photos, and a book signing later, Tuttle leads me to the door of his house, a tequila grapefruit in hand. As we walk down the front steps, he raises his glass, squints into the golden light of early evening, and says, “Whatever you do with your article, make me look like a gentleman. That’s all I ask.” Tuttle passed away peacefully at his home in Ukiah on March 25, 2019 at the age of 87, exactly one month and one week after my interview with him. ♦