Doc Forbes is one of the most famous early tattoo artists in Canadian history, having learned the craft from Frederick Baldwin, the first tattoo artist in Canada to use an electric tattoo machine, in the 1920’s. 

Doc Forbes showing his sleeves off, from Classic Tattoo Appreciation
1966 heart by Curly Allen on Hasting street .. and 1967 swallow and rose by Doc Forbes at Ace Tattoo on Davies Street

Doc Forbes trained under numerous brilliant artists including Pat Martynuik from San Francisco. Much of Doc’s work can be found in Lyle Tuttle’s collection, although unfortunately Doc suffered a stroke in the early 70’s which led to severe depression, which in turn led to him destroying a lot of his work. 

Doc Forbes tattooing a sailor around 1965 while his buddies look on. From vintage tattoo photo archive
Doc Forbes with a young man from the Navy that he tattooed. Picture from New York Tattoo History

Doc Forbes tattooed in the classic old school American traditional style, and most notably worked near the navy base in Victoria, and then on Davies Street right in Vancouver from the 1960’s through to the 1970’s. He died in 1977 on Lyle Tuttle’s birthday; October 10th. Though Doc was a pioneer of old school tattooing in Canada, he also performed medical tattoos on burn victims, and cosmetic tattooing on women’s lips and eyebrows. 

1960’s pink panther by Doc Forbes
Doc working on a woman’s back from Classic Tattoo Appreciation

Doc tattooed everyone, but his main clientele was young men in the Navy who often got classic military and navy designs such as eagles, skulls, roses, ships, and lover’s names. 

Doc tattooing a young woman’s chest, from Docks Weird Years
Leg sleeves in progress by Doc, from New York Tattoo History

A brilliant documentary about Doc can be seen here on CBC’s website. Made in 1964, and entitled “The Diary of a Tattooist,” the short documentary and interview features CBC host Harry Mannis visiting Doc in his shop in Victoria. Numerous people are tattooed in the short film including a mother of four, a man in his 80’s, a close friend of Doc’s, and two sailors. Throughout the documentary Doc talks about hygiene and safety in tattooing, how he makes his colours, the technicality of running the machine, who his clientele are, and much more.

$18 for the pair on a man before he joined the navy
Doc tattooing Lyle Tuttle

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6 thoughts on “Tattoo History 13: Doc Forbes

  1. A great article thank you! I’ve been trying to find more out about early BC Tattoo artists.

    There are two articles by Albert Foote in the Vancouver Sun Saturday magazine that led me to your post. One from November 23rd, 1940 and the other from May 10, 1947. Both are versions of the same story about a new sailer being tattooed in Vancouver by Hugo Spitzer who had a shop on Main Street (called Westminster Street then). Searching, I learned Prof. H. Spitzer was a big deal in the States and there are photos of his work and mentions of his studios in a 2019 online article. Nothing about him being in Vancouver, though. The Sun articles are about the “old days.” The street name was changed in 1910 and the mentioned Melbourne Hotel is listed in 1907 directories (not sure how long it was here after). According to the online article, the Oregon Ben photo is circa 1910. Spitzer is thought to have relocated to Portland 1910-1912. The incident was before the 1920s.

    The 1947 Sun article mentions Hugo Spitzer’s “magic electric needle.” If correct, this would have been before Doc Forbes used his. Forgotten history maybe. The illustration for the 1947 story is awesome you might like it.

    If you don’t have access to the papers I’d be more than happy to send them to you. I found another one about a month ago in the May 30, 1936 Colonist about historic NY tattooers. A lot of them used the “prof” moniker too.

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    1. Thanks so much fore reading my post and leaving a comment!

      I tried to look up the paper you mentioned but I can’t seem to find it online, if you would be able to send them to me that would be amazing!

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      1. This is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing! Would you mind if I quote some of these in future posts, crediting you for sharing with me of course?

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      2. Absolutely! It’s why I thought I should share them with you. I’ll likely use them for reference at some point, as well, but my focus is more on sailor folklore (superstitions, etc) on BC’s coast. Tattoos playing a large role. I’ll put one more article in there. It’s not tattoo specific, but it mentions the captain’s tattooed knuckles.

        Liked by 1 person

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