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Modern Living: Tattoo Renaissance

3 minute read

As an art, they have been traced back 4,000 years to the Egyptians. They appear in the culture of the Polynesians, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Mayas and the Incas. King George V, Czar Nicholas II and King Frederik IX of Denmark wore them. For years they have adorned the arms and chests of sailors, roustabouts and construction workers. Now, after a decade or two of decline, tattoos are enjoying a renaissance. They have become the vogue of the counterculture.

The popularity of the ancient art among today’s youth seems eminently logical to San Francisco Tattooist Lyle Tuttle, who is profiting handsomely from the resurgence. “Tattoos are merely another physical form of expression,” he explains. “A way to say something intimately with your body.” In the past year Tuttle has tattooed members of more than a dozen Northern California communes. “One group was really weird,” he says. It “grooved on the cosmos−each one was tattooed with specified planets, and together they made up a kind of an astronomical map.” Tuttle’s most celebrated client was Blues Singer Janis Joplin, who sported a Florentine wristlet tattoo and had a small heart tattooed on her left breast. Since her death last October from an accidental overdose of drugs, Tuttle has inscribed replicas of the Joplin heart on more than 100 young female fans.

Among Tuttle’s clientele−and the patrons of such tattooists as Los Angeles’ Jim Malonson and Chicago’s Cliff Raven−the most popular new designs are peace symbols, astrological signs, doves, black panthers, Hindu gods and excerpts from the hip lexicon (“right on,” “trip” and “head” are among the current favorites). Tuttle’s prices vary with complexity. A simple wristlet goes for $20, while a Hindu god or a black panther can cost in excess of $500.

Tuttle holds a city health license, and his place is outfitted with sterilizers and examining tables; the overall effect is more that of a doctor’s office than a tattoo parlor. The curious are permitted to look on as Tuttle imprints hands, forearms, manly chests or shoulders. But some 40% of his customers are women, and when a lady wants a tattoo in an intimate spot, Tuttle asks her to bring a friend as a witness−for his own protection−and closes the door.

Simultaneous Sessions. Servicemen still stop in for “Mother” or “Death Before Dishonor” tattoos, but Tuttle’s place is considered neutral ground when it comes to sociological or political disputes. He still marvels at the congeniality of two recent customers who chatted and chuckled together through simultaneous tattoo sessions. One, a black man in a beret, was having a panther tattooed on his back. The other walked out with a red and blue Confederate flag unfurled on his white shoulder.

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