I met him 40 years ago in the late 1970’s when he came to Bert Grimm’s shop in Portland, Oregon. I was just starting out tattooing, and was going to art school and thought I was “hot stuff”, like we all do in our 20’s. But I soon learned a lifetime of education just watching Lyle, the admitted High School Dropout and Bert, a 4th grade dropout negotiate the sale of the business.
Observing the personality skills they both used on each other and the clients that walked in the door was a revelation. Just like Bert had talked me into my first tattoo when I accidentally walked into his tattoo shop, thinking it was a head shop. I witnessed a man come into the shop looking for change for a parking meter and walking out two hours later with a dazed look on his face and an eagle on his arm!
Lyle and I really got to know each other in the Fall of 1981 when I accompanied Bert and Julia Grimm to San Francisco where Lyle inducted him into the Tattoo Hall of Fame.
Bert was preceded in this honor by Betty Broadbent. Of course, Bert wanted to know why he wasn’t the first inductee, to which Lyle famously quipped “Ladies First”. And that tells you so much about the essence of the man, Lyle Tuttle, who virtually opened up the tattoo world to women at exactly the right time. Women’s liberation put tattooing on the map because it increased the population getting tattooed by 50%.
Lyle has collected tattoo stories, memorabilia and women with equal enthusiasm. Through the years Lyle amassed the world’s largest tattoo collection in the United States.
After seeing the widowed Bert at the Seattle Tattoo Convention in 1985, Lyle drove down the Oregon coast on his way back home and emptied Bert’s garage, saving the majority of Bert’s flash and equipment from a neighbor who was helping herself to everything he owned.
Lyle changed tattooing in many ways. He was one of the first to not adopt a “needle name” to protect his family from ridicule. Just like Bert his mentor, he was proud of what he did and wanted everybody to know it. Lyle appreciated the weird parts of tattooing and was honest about who he was. He didn’t take himself too seriously. After all, he invented the “Mamma Monkeys”, a club of women who would take care of his needs whenever he traveled.
He once said “I am like a hooker. I had to learn how to turn them tricks.” And he found his niche. “You take care of tattooing and it will take care of you.” He called talking customers into getting tattooed “the art of the con.” He also said so much of tattooing are the memories of getting the tattoo, not the actual work. Lyle called it being in the “voodoo hut”. Yes, you could quote Lyle every day of your life.
One of Lyle’s most famous quips was “tattooing has turned more pukes into princes” or the variation “tattoo machines should be called magic wands because they have turned more pukes into princes.”
He made his first money in 1949 with Pop Eddy, who also gave him his first machine. Ralph Duke Kaufman did his first tattoo in 1946 when Lyle was 14. It was a “heart with Mother”.
His last day in the shop was September 6, 1980, though he tattooed his name thousands of times on countless fans at tattoo conventions around the world. His last day with us was March 25, 2019. An irreplaceable icon, and one I was fortunate enough to call my friend.
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