PCS Blog

Janis Joplin: Tattoo Trailblazer

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 09 June 2011

"I wanted some decoration. See, the one on my wrist is for everybody; the one on my [chest] is for me and my friends. Just a little treat for the boys, like icing on the cake."
- Janis Joplin, on her tattoos
As a twenty-something living in Portland in 2011, a significant percentage of my friends and acquaintances have or intend to get at least one tattoo. And this statistic isn't surprising; according to the Pew Research Center, in the United States 36% of those ages 18 to 25 and 40% of those ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos are now the norm - at least in terms of social acceptance. Thus it is somewhat odd to imagine that this was not always the case. In the late 1960s, tattoos were still seen as the counterculture art form of motorcyclists, sailors and criminals. Then Janis Joplin burst onto the scene with her feather boas, beads and bangles...and her tattoos. With a delicate Florentine bracelet tattoo on her wrist and a small heart design on her breast, Janis Joplin was a driving influence behind the popularization of the tattoo, which hadn't yet found cultural acceptance in the United States.
Janis’ tattoos were created by Lyle Tuttle at his tattoo shop on Seventh Street in San Francisco. “It was just a trip," said Janis, who proudly discussed and displayed her tattoos for the San Francisco Chronicle and viewers of The Dick Cavett Show.
Although he started his tattooing career in 1949, Lyle Tuttle opened his first tattoo shop on Seventh Street in San Francisco in 1960. He credited women’s liberation as one of the key factors in helping tattoos to gain popularity. "Women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form," he explained. In addition to Janis, Tuttle also famously created tattoos for Cher and Peter Fonda.  As tattooing emerged from an underground art form to the mainstream, Lyle worked with the San Francisco Department of Health to come up with modern and standardized techniques for the sterilization of tattooing equipment. He appeared in the 1970s on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and was the subject of numerous documentaries on tattooing. He was also photographed by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone magazine. He had this to say about his experience tattooing Janis Joplin:
"When Janis came into the shop I didn't recognize her. She was this groovy little hippy chick with the clothes and all these bracelets and necklaces.  I liked her.  She wanted two tattoos.  Now any smart tattoo artist should know that when a customer wants two tattoos, you always do the biggest one first.  The tattoo on her wrist was patterned after one of these bracelets that she was wearing, one that she had picked up on her tour in South America.  I just freehanded it with a ballpoint pen and that was that.  Now Janis was a Capricorn and Capricorn women can be tough as hell.  But she told me that getting a tattoo was just about the worse pain she could imagine and she wasn't going to get the second tattoo.  She said it in a lot more colorful language than that, I can tell you!  In a situation like that, you have to tell your customer that years down the road, you'd look back on the experience and regret not getting something that you walked into the shop wanting.  Unfulfilled desires!  So I told Janis to go downstairs and get a drink and come back.  Let me tell you, Janis threw those boys for a loop.  They were all shook up.  It was a real working class bar and she walked in with her ensemble and one of those things - a boa - wrapped around her neck.  They hadn't seen the like!  Anyway, she came back and I did the little heart on her breast.  Just a small thing that I drew by hand.”
- Lyle Tuttle, on Janis Joplin
Shortly after her own decoration, Janis threw a party in her Mill Valley, California house, and Tuttle was the chief attraction. On The Dick Cavett Show, Janis boasted that 18 of her friends also got tattoos from Tuttle that night.
You can check out her full interview from The Dick Cavett Show below (skip to about the 6:13 mark for a candid discussion of her tattoos!):
Tuttle later stated in a Rolling Stone article that after Janis' death in 1970, he tattooed over 100 replicas of Janis' heart on young female fans.
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