‘Don’t get one, stay unique’: A surprising piece of advice from legendary tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle
Tattoos are a fading fad, says veteran celebrity tattooist Lyle Tuttle during his visit to Australia as part of the international body art expo circuit.
By Margaret Burin
Portrait of 84-year-old Lyle Tuttle
Lyle Tuttle has tattooed well-known musicians including Janis Joplin, Cher and Paul Stanley during his 65 years in the industry. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
“I was hotter than a pistol at one time,” the 84-year-old chuckles.
“Now I’m a has-been.”
Lyle Tuttle would rather have been a has-been, than a never-was.
In his hey-day, the US tattoo artist was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and had famous musicians turning up unannounced at his San Francisco shop door.
One of them was Janis Joplin.
Lyle Tuttle on the cover of Rolling Stone
A copy of the 1970 Rolling Stone cover, featuring Lyle Tuttle at work. (Supplied: Lyle Tuttle)
“Here comes two big dogs into the tattoo shop, and then this crazy gal with her hair and bracelets on,” he says.
She asked for two tattoos; a bracelet design on her wrist and a tiny heart on her breast.
“You learn early on in tattooing that if someone comes in and they pick out a large design and a small design, you put the big one on first,” Tuttle says.
"I got the bracelet on, she went downstairs and had a couple of drinks, and then I put the little one on.
“I must’ve put a few hundred of those on after she passed on, people got them in memory of Janis.”
It was women that fired Tuttle’s publicity rocket.
Only a few years after tattooing had been outlawed in New York City, the women’s liberation movement hit America.
Tuttle’s media commentary on the issue put him into the international spotlight.
Before that, the industry had been associated with drunken sailors or ex-prisoners.
“All of a sudden it became a kinder, softer, gentler form of art,” he says.
"With women’s liberation, they were getting them on their breasts, inside their bikini line.
“I’ve seen a lot of pubic hair in my time.”
‘Now it’s a trend and a fad’
A part of the body art trade since 1949, Tuttle has tattooed many famous rock stars and has inked people on all seven continents. Yes, that includes Antarctica.
He has a tiny penguin on his right forearm to mark the occasion.
Tattooing used to be a compulsion. In my era, I just had to have a tattoo. It just seemed like a step in growing up Lyle Tutter
Everywhere he goes, he collect tattoos just as most people accrue passport stamps.
His most recent ink is a miniature kiwi he got on his trip to New Zealand earlier this week, located just nearby a tiny tattoo from a visit to Australia a few years back.
“Tattoos are stickers on your luggage,” he says.
As hundreds of inked-up people wander through the tattoo expo at Melbourne’s convention centre, it is obvious that there are many people who enjoy the benefits of body art’s acceptance by mainstream society.
“I think our nursing homes are going to look pretty rockin’,” says Jade Baxter, a tattoo artist from Bacchus Marsh, west of Melbourne.
Backstage, the expo’s veteran guest offers a piece of advice that may come as a bit of a shock.
“Don’t get one, and stay unique,” he says.
This is where his old school views may differ from those of the tattoo enthusiasts of today.
He is against facial, neck and hand tattoos.
Tattoo artist Jade Baxter
“I think we’ve passed that point,” tattooist Jade Baxter says of people who claim the industry is just a fad. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
And he reminisces about the days when a tattoo was a hard-earned travel mark that would stay on the skin for life.
“Tattooing used to be a compulsion. In my era, I just had to have a tattoo. It just seemed like a step in growing up,” he says.
"I was 10 years and two months old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
"Guys returning from service would have a tattoo here and there. These guys went off and earned their tattoos.
“Now it’s a trend and a fad, and trends and fads end.”
Around the world there is a growing industry of people making money off peoples’ ink regrets.
Near the stage where Tuttle will help judge the work of budding Australian body artists, Skye Corvin mans the stall of her laser tattoo removal company.
One of her latest clients was a young man who had tattooed the word “meth” on his head.
“We get a lot ex-partners’ names, things that are spelt wrong, drunken mistakes, things from Thailand,” she says.
"Some of the stuff, you’re just like, what was it meant to be? You can’t even tell.
"We’re starting to see a lot of stuff that was really cool in the 90s like tribal, barbed wire.
“I would probably do the southern cross tattoo every two days, which I like because I think it’s a bit of a bogan tattoo.”
The former nurse says clients rarely request full removal, but just want it faded to they can update it with a new design.
“We fade it and then they go and get something else,” she says.
“Some people come in and you say, ‘why do you want it removed’ and it’s purely because they want something different.”