Lyle Tuttle, légende du tatouage. Rencontre

« Tattoos are like stickers on your luggage » Lyle Tuttle

Un soir, sur le chemin d’un retour dans les rues de San Francisco, j’avais la soudaine envie d’une saveur nouvelle. Je voulais de la couleur, des dessins, une découverte. Le voyage est comme un tic tac permanent qui vous rappelle qu’un jour vous allez partir, qu’il faut profiter de chaque jour pour vivre une nouvelle aventure.

En remontant Columbus Street, je suis passée devant ce tattoo shop, comme tous les soirs et matins d’ailleurs. L’air doux et frais me pousse vers mon chez-moi au chaud, avec un café. Allez, j’ai bien cinq minutes, disons que c’est aujourd’hui ou jamais.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Je découvre alors des murs rose ancien tapissés de planches de tatouages.

Deux tatoueurs, accoudés au comptoir semblable à celui d’un pub se tournent vers moi : « Hey, how are you doing ? » « I’m fine, and you? » « Great! ». Les yeux imbibés de couleurs, de tattoos vintage typiques américains, de corps de pin-up que l’on se grave sur la peau, d’aigles, de papillons, d’indiens et de dragons, je complimente les tableaux et peintures murales. « Thank you! Are you on vacation? », me répondent-ils. « I’m in internship for six months » « Oh nice, where? » « In an art gallery not so far! » « That’s cool! As you see this place is between an art gallery and a tattoo shop! Our boss opened it in the sixties, he’s eighty years old now but he still tattoos people sometimes! ». Je les remercie, leur dis à bientôt, que je repasserai à l’occasion.

En y repensant, je me dis qu’il serait intéressant de rencontrer cet homme ayant vu tant de choses. Et puis, croiser le chemin d’un tatoueur de quatre-vingts ans n’est pas habituel !

Je me rends donc à nouveau au magasin, les jeunes tatoueurs me disent qu’il n’y a pas de soucis pour l’interview, « You can come on Monday night, he will be here! »

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Le dimanche au soir, je réalise que je ne connais même pas le nom de cet homme. Je commence mes recherches. Je tombe alors sur une page Wikipedia et un tas de mots-clés qui attirent mon attention : tatoueur de Janis Joplin, maître du tatouage, couverture de Rolling Stone, T-shirts créés à partir de ses tatouages, historien de cet art. Voilà comment, à San Francisco, j’ai rencontré une légende du tatouage, Lyle Tuttle.

Lundi soir. Je passe la porte transparente ornée du luminaire « Tattoo – Open ». « Here is the French girl! How are you Gaile? So it’s for a French magazine, right? » « Hi! Nice to meet you! Yes, it’s called Manifesto XXI. How can I pronounce your name? Lile? » « Lyle ». Lyle et son équipe m’attendaient au comptoir.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Il m’invite alors dans son appartement au-dessus du magasin. Comme beaucoup de vieux bâtiments à San Francisco, l’isolation est légère, il fait froid. Les tableaux envahissent les murs. Frank Koci, s’appelle l’artiste. Il me confesse sa passion pour le peintre qui l’a inspiré depuis toujours. Les meubles sont vintage, j’aperçois un vieux transistor rose. Il m’offre un café, pour lui ce sera tequila jus d’ananas. Le radiateur étant en panne, il me propose de nous rendre à l’étage du dessous, dans son autre appartement. Dans celui-ci, tout est posé négligemment, l’atmosphère bohème m’étreint. Fidèle à son rythme de globe-trotter, le lieu lui sert de pied-à-terre. Les plafonds sont bleu clair et les nuages flottent au-dessus de nos têtes. Nous nous installons, la conversation avec Lyle commence.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Manifesto XXI – What are the origins of tattooing?

Tattooing goes back long before recorded time, it has a long rich history that is known and practiced by every culture and modern civilization. I’m not gonna explain all of it or you would have to write a book! With the spread of Catholicism and New World expansion, tattooing was brought to Western Civilization. The word “tattoo” came from the Polynesian word “tat taw” or “to strike”. Captain Cook first noted it in his books documenting his sea adventures during the seventeen hundreds. However, tattooing existed long before this and has been practiced by tribes all over the world for its magic and religious symbolism.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Manifesto XXI – Tattoo is a big trend nowadays, was it always the same? Or maybe the trends are about the designs people pick up? Have you seen evolutions in client’s orders?

Tattooing will never disappear. However I do believe right now it’s a trend, and just like all trends at some point it’s not cool anymore. There is a fad and a trend now with people getting tattooed. I remember one time when everybody was wearing bell-bottom trousers. Those were extremely popular but nobody wears them anymore. It would eventually subside and people who really want them will have them.

Concerning the designs, I don’t really work in the shop everyday so I don’t really know the designs people are picking now. What I do is put small pieces on collectors who just want something from me. Usually eagles, butterflies and sometimes dragons. Tattoo is an external decoration for eternal feelings. I’ve been tattooing for sixty-five years, spent thousands of hours sitting in that chair drawing pictures on people. I love the lifestyle and the people. It’s like working in a nightclub. I love my job. I usually put tattoos on people and they don’t care what they get as long as they get a tattoo from me. Most of the time they just ask for an autograph.

Tattooing was like a college education to me. For example, if somebody comes in and wants a unicorn tattoo on the arm, they know the story about unicorns backwards and forwards, while you’re tattooing them they’re telling you the story.

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©Gaëlle Palluel

Manifesto XXI – As if they buy a painting from a famous artist, clients get a tattoo from Lyle Tuttle?

Yes but the bad thing about my work is that they can’t resell it. They can’t go down to the pawnshop and sell it for money. It’s a body modification that is a permanent thing!

Manifesto XXI – When did you really begin to be a tattoo artist?

I got my first tattoo when I was 14. I came down from Ukiah on the bus. My parents gave me their OK to take my day trip and come down. The war had just ended and I kept seeing all these guys coming home with tattoos, but it was never my intention that day to come down to get tattooed. I just came down to see the Big City (cf. San Francisco). I got off the bus that day and made sure to stay close for fear of getting lost. I was only fourteen, you know, I didn’t want to get lost! Then I saw the sign with the magic word T.A.T.T.O.O. Inside, I saw all these designs on the walls. The tattooer yelled at me: “Hey! What the hell do you want?” At fourteen years old you can’t do many things, you can’t have a drink, and you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I went “Babababa”, like a shy little boy. I pointed out a design; it was a heart with “Mother”. It was put on in about five minutes. Boom Boom Boom. Very quick. On my way back home, it was very dark, the bus didn’t have any lights in the inside of it. I could feel the tattoo but I couldn’t see it. I would lose the tattoo in the dark and think it wasn’t on my arm but then the street lights would hit it and I’d say to myself “I have it, I have it!” Well, it was like a sticker on my luggage, a sticker from San Francisco. So from that point forward I wanted to be a tattoo artist. I went back to the city and began talking to other tattoo artists trying to make friends but ended up just hitting a wall. There was a tattoo artist in San Francisco named Pop Eddy who was the brother of a man who worked with my father. When I told him who I was and that his brother worked with my father, he agreed to teach me. He said “yes it’s my brother!” It was my aim. You had to have somebody teaching you, it was a secret art form. There were no magazines, no conventions, it was a clandestine, underground art form. So I got some equipment from him and he gave me some instructions. Nowadays, there are hundreds of books about tattoo history, you go on the Internet and just Google it. You have these TV shows, they deliver wrong information to the tattoo customers and they take the mystic out of tattooing.

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Manifesto XXI – Could you describe the atmosphere of San Francisco in the 60’s – 70’s, when you started to be a famous tattoo artist?

It was the Hippies, Haight Ashbury, the Summer of Love. I used to live in Sausalito. I had a barber on Haight St. and all of a sudden, all these people just started showing up. My barber was two blocs away from Haight Ashbury and it wasn’t long before I had to change my barber because I couldn’t find a parking place anymore. Everything started to get crowded. During this time, I was very busy down on Seventh Street so I missed a lot of the hippie movement and I was also a little older than they were you know. There was a whole movement, a drug movement, LSD and everyone was trying it in an attempt to expand there minds. Everything was changing rapidly, values, morals, the entire human outlook was changing. With women’s liberation, independent women started getting tattooed, changing the culture of tattooing forever. Before this, the only female clients I had were usually drunks or drug addicts.

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Manifesto XXI – I read you tattooed Janis Joplin and many celebrities during that period. May you tell us these stories? You know for me, these people are myths, I would be curious to know how it was to see such characters coming into your shop!

True, I tattooed a lot of musicians such as Bill Graham. He used to say that his favorite pastime in the band room was showing off his tattoos! Back in those days I was really busy and I’m not a big music fan. Music to me is like noise in the back of the bar. But I can tell you some stories I have in mind. Jim Croce: I tattooed him and he didn’t bother to tell me who he was. A woman came up here one day, she had two guys with her and she was opening a restaurant in San Diego California. It was going to be called Croce’s and she wanted to know all about the day I tattooed her husband. I said, “Croce, Croce, you’re not talking about Jim Croce, are you?” He had died in an airplane crash and she had come to ask me about the time I tattooed him. I was sure I didn’t tattoo this guy but she said, “yes you did”. But he came here he didn’t tell me he was Jim Croce! I would have liked to meet him because to me the interesting thing about music is the lyrics, the words.

I’ve heard of Janis Joplin on the radio and then I was watching television. One day she came in, she was just coming back from South America. She was wearing these round things wrapped around her neck, all these necklaces. The Hippies were really outlandish in the way they dressed. I was in my own little world so at first I didn’t notice it was Janis Joplin. I was just looking at a hippie with five pounds of bracelets hanging on her wrists and with two beagle dogs. I just said something like: “for god sake would you leave these dogs outside”, she did!

(Janis Joplin parle d’ailleurs du tatoueur et de ce qu’il a réalisé sur elle à la sixième minute de cette interview)

Sans titre

I also tattooed the Allman Brothers, members of the Grateful Dead and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I didn’t know what the Grateful Dead’s songs sounded like until the guitar player died. Then a retrospective came out of the Grateful Dead’s music and I listened to it on the radio. Anyway, all these people didn’t even bother to tell who they were!

Manifesto XXI – Tattooing is not very well regarded in some circumstances and jobs. Do you think tattoos in the future will be fully tolerated?

Yes I think so. What are these poor girls and boys gonna be doing with their arms all tattooed, tattooed on the neck, on the legs? Tattoos don’t go away, people change but tattoos remain constant. I was the only person in my family tree to get tattooed. The percentage of tattooed persons at the time was very low! Now it’s like 60, 70%?

www.lyletuttle.com
www.lyletuttle.com

Manifesto XXI – Now it’s even the contrary sometimes nowadays when you’re not tattooed, it’s like you’re not cool, you’re uptight. Do you still tattoo yourself?

I own the orchestra so I call the tune! I don’t have room on my body so I get tattooed on my tattoos.

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Manifesto XXI – Why did you become famous? I ask it because tattoo is not very popular. I mean a lot of people today get tattooed but they are not really interested in the tattoo world or its history, or it’s hard to imagine a superstar in the world of tattoo, like a superstar in music or cinema.

I became famous all because of timing, I think. Timing is everything. It’s not the best musicians that sell millions of albums. You have to be a good musician or a descent musician; you must have a stage presence. You will see that the stories I’m going to tell now are all about timing.

www.lyletuttle.com
www.lyletuttle.com

There was a body shirt made from my tattoos. One day, I was in Paris walking down the street and I saw two girls with my shirt on. I started to tell them “I’m wearing the original” but they couldn’t speak a word of English. There were journalists sitting near us having dinner, they overheard me. They guessed I was the guy the shirt was made after. The next day I’m in the news early in the morning on French TV!

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I have another story about these T-shirts. The Chelsea Hotel was the place I used to stay when I was in New York City. So one day I go out from the hotel and there is a guy walking down the street wearing my goddamn body shirt on him! So I yell at the guy, he runs over across the street waiting for me on the sidewalk and I walked up, do you know who is the guy? John Lennon! He was wearing my shirt! They were filming Superfly at the Chelsea Hotel, that’s why he was there. He bought it downtown in a store, liked it but didn’t know anything about it! So, from the late 60’s to the mid 70’s weird things happened you know, Rolling Stones Magazine, these body shirts made from my tattoos, Janis Joplin and the others, this story with John Lennon… It was all about timing.

www.lyletuttle.com
www.lyletuttle.com

Manifesto XXI – What are your inspirations as a tattoo artist?

It’s funny to ask because most artists have a special design, a design that sticks in your mind, a basic essence of somebody’s artwork, not all but a lot. In my “shipping room” at home where I stock my collection of tattoo artifacts, tattoo machines and a lot of old business cards, pre and post 1970, one of the biggest collections in the world by the way! In this room, there is a floor cover that has a certain geometric design I like, I can even draw it by memory. I don’t know why I love it. It inspires me even if I don’t copy it. Then there are the placards on the walls in Original Joe’s (a famous San Francisco restaurant)… I’m also a Frank Koci fan, I became an artist when I discovered Koci’s paintings. I collect it; I’ve shown you in my living room downstairs, it’s full of his paintings! I don’t know I was about thirty-five years old when I found out that Art Deco was not a guy! (Laughing).

Franc Koci
Franc Koci

Manifesto XXI – When I came to your colleagues the day I asked for the interview, they told me: “You definitely have to ask him explanations about these red socks he always wear!” So, why red socks all your life long?

I can’t really give you an answer! I never really noticed it, everybody said I was always wearing red socks. When I turned seventy, they organized a surprise birthday party for me. Actually it was not really a surprise because I had to go to the airport. A blind man could have picked it up! When they sang “Happy Birthday” for me, they all held their feet up in the air, I have a picture of it, and they’re all wearing red socks. I really started wearing red socks a long time ago. At the time you could not go to a store and buy red socks, they were very difficult to find. It was like a precious thing I was collecting I guess. Now you can go on E-bay, searching for “red socks men” and come up with thousand of people selling red socks!

Je lui propose de mettre fin à l’interview pour qu’il ait le temps de réaliser le tatouage qu’un client lui a demandé. J’ai plutôt de la chance, il n’en fait que très peu désormais. Nous aurions pu rester à discuter des heures tant les digressions furent nombreuses. Il descend, me dit de prendre mon temps et de le rejoindre dans le magasin. Je prend mon temps, contemple l’endroit une dernière fois avant de partir, lève les yeux au ciel de peinture.

Je retrouve Lyle et son équipe autour du futur tatoué. Lyle raconte des blagues, selon ses dires, il les connaît toutes et aime les raconter encore et encore.

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©Gaëlle Palluel

Nous rions, nous observons le tatouage, je ne comprends pas toutes les blagues, vous savez ce moment où vous ne savez pas trop si vous devez rire ou pas. Leur accent est prononcé, c’est la seule explication que je trouve veuillez m’excuser. Jonny, l’un des employés le remarque et me les ré-explique. Je ris en décalé quoi !

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

La commande est routinière : une tête d’aigle comme sur ses anciennes cartes de visite, mais surtout, le label Lyle Tuttle. J’écoute les conversations d’une oreille, occupée à prendre mes photos, des photos de ses photos étant jeune, et à m’imprégner de cet instant magique, voyage dans le temps, de la Seconde Guerre mondiale aux Hippies en passant par le Rock’n’Roll. À cet instant, bercée par toutes ces histoires, je n’aurais pu imaginer un San Francisco plus cliché.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

Soir de match, tradition oblige, direction le bar en bas de la rue. « Come with us! » « I can’t I’m not 21 yet… »  « Holy shit! A baby! See you later girl, take care! ». Nous nous quittons là-dessus, jusqu’au prochain salut à travers la vitrine.

©Gaëlle Palluel
©Gaëlle Palluel

I’d like to say THANK YOU to Lyle Tuttle for this great meeting, for welcoming me in his home, and to Jonny & James working in the shop, and the client !

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