While Lyle Tuttle (1931-2019) could easily have exhibited himself in sideshows, he did not. He was a guy who made many sideshow artists possible. Tuttle himself sported a full tattoo “body suit” largely drawn by his mentor Bert Grimm, but his life’s work was tattooing others, including some rather famous people.
Tuttle was from a family of Iowa farmers who moved to Mendocino County, California in the 1930s. When he was 14, he made the trip into San Francisco and got his first tat, the traditional heart-arrow-“mother”. For context, it was the tale end of World War Two — sailors were coming back home with them, along with stories of their wartime exploits. I have never heard the appeal of tattoos better articulated than in this quote of Tuttle’s:
Tattoos were living proof of a great adventure, with travel and romance combined. It meant that this guy had been out of the valley, over the horizon and places I had never heard of. WOW! So that’s why tattoos have always been special to me. Tattoos are travel marks, stickers on your luggage.
Man! That LITERALLY connects tattoo people to showfolk…it’s like the badge of the wanderer. Perhaps less so today, now that they are ubiquitous, but this is the origin, and why they eventually became fashionable. Tuttle was one of the crucial instigators of that trend. He set up his own tattoo shop in San Francisco in the 1950s. The time and the place are significant. The town would explode over the course of the following decade, becoming a sort of mecca for young non-conformists from all over the country. Janis Joplin was one of those kids, and she became the first of many countercultural figures he illustrated, along with Peter Fonda, Cher, and the Allman Brothers. In 1970 he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, photographed by Annie Liebowitz, interviewed by Dick Cavett. His famous tattoo shop also came to include a museum, which told the history of the art form.
You will find countless tributes to Tuttle on the internet, including this one on worldtattooevents.com, where I found the photo and excellent quote above. He passed away in 2019, making him eligible for induction into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame, where you will also find him honored.
For more on variety arts history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,