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I Never Wanted A Tattoo…Until I Met Lyle Tuttle

I sat down once for an interview with the tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, and I could not be more grateful for the time I spent with him. Because he inspired me to get my first and only tattoo: A small hummingbird on my arm that helps me every day. And I never would have gotten my comforting companion if I hadn’t met Lyle.

Tuttle said he fell in love with tattoos as a boy when he saw them on the men returning from WWII, forever equating the artwork with travel and the kind of adventures rarely found in his small hometown near Ukiah. As soon as he could, Tuttle embarked on his own adventures, eventually opening a tattoo studio in San Francisco where he became famous for inking famous people such as Janis Joplin and Cher.

And he told me about his life at the perfect time in my life: I was about to turn 41, the age at which my mother had been killed in a car crash, and I had been struggling to decide how I wanted to mark that milestone.

But as I listened to Tuttle describing how he had traveled the world and didn’t need photographs of the places he’d seen and people he’d met because he collected tattoos instead, like “stickers on luggage,” I suddenly knew what I wanted to do — carve a small “sticker” on my arm so I could take my mother with me everywhere. And give her the years she never got to enjoy.

Since my mother loved birds so much, I found a simple drawing of a hummingbird I liked, then found a tattoo artist whose work I liked and made an appointment near my birthday. After a stiff drink at a neighborhood bar, I headed over to get my ink. At first the artist resisted my choice of artwork, then she questioned where I wanted the bird.

“You do realize that if I draw it like that, it will be upside down for everyone looking at it?” she said.

I thought of Tuttle, whose bodysuit of tattoos stopped at the neckline and ankles so he could cover them with clothing whenever he wanted. Not because he was ashamed of them, but because, “They are mine. I choose when to share them.”

And I told the tattoo artist that I didn’t care the hummingbird would be upside down for everyone else, because “it’s for me to look at.” She smiled, then did exactly as I asked. And I could not be happier with what she put on my arm.

At first it was just a way to carry my mother with me to enjoy all the moments she lost. But it has become something even more important: my antidote to fear. Looking at it reminds me that every day now is a day my mother never had. And that I should make the most of every one I get.

And I need to be reminded of that a lot. Because her death also gave me a fear of driving for fun. My mother died on a weekend trip to see a new bird. So I’m not afraid of the driving you do every day, say to work and the grocery store. I’m afraid of the drives that are supposed to be fun; the drives that take you to new places and new experiences.

Like when I make plans to check out a new hiking trail with my dog. It’s just about my favorite thing to do these days, yet I can tell myself that it isn’t worth dying for, this silly new trail. “This is exactly how your mom died, chasing after a new bird for her list. Is that what you want? The dog will be just as happy walking in the park you always go to.”

But then I look at my hummingbird, and I picture myself in a nursing home, where my father spent his last years, needing a walker to go down the hall and unable to drive himself two minutes to the store, let alone two hours to a new trail.

And I think of my grandmother in an assisted living facility, no longer able to do “anything that made life fun,” like visiting Paris again. Walking five blocks to the ocean to watch the surfers. Walking two blocks to the donut shop for coffee and gossip.

At the end of my life, do I want to sit there looking at my wrinkled hummingbird and thinking of all the trails I didn’t try when I could still get in that car anytime I wanted to drive as far as I wanted, then step out and walk as far as I wanted? No, I do not.

Many, many times, that tattoo has helped me get into the car and drive where I want to go. And I have Lyle to thank for that.

Lyle Tuttle died in Ukiah on March 26, 2019, at the age of 87. 

One Comment

  1. Harvey Chess April 6, 2021

    Well done, and thank you for your story and the memories. My first two tattoos – in the form of signs of the zodiac for me and the mother of our children and spouse at the time – came from Lyle Tuttle in my first visit to San Francisco in the 70’s. It was his fame (notoriety) that compelled me to seek him out though, unlike you, I don’t recall much conversation between us. I can’t ascribe the impact my tattoos had on me with nearly the depth of meaning your one had on you. But, I can relate that what began with him continued for years as my work carried me all over the country. I’ve always imagined my subsequent etchings as something akin to a psychic road map. When I reminisce about those times, Lyle Tuttle is always in the mix.

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