Tattoo History 13: Doc Forbes

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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Tattoo History 9: Lyle Tuttle

Lyle Tuttle was known as the father of modern tattooing, working in the industry from the late 1940’s until his death ( March 2019).

Lyle outside his San Francisco shop

He got his first tattoo at the young age of 14 for the cheap price of $3.50 and was hooked immediately.

Lyle’s front done by Bert Grimm

Lyle’s most well known tattoos on himself were done by the famous Bert Grimm back in 1957 and 1958 at the very shop he would then work at for a number of years, known affectionately as “The Pike”.

Lyle’s back done by Bert Grimm

After working for Bert Grimm, and a couple of smaller shops, Lyle opened his own shop in San Fransisco in 1960. He worked at the shop for 29 years before an earthquake damaged it. After tattooing for years he officially retired in the 90’s, but did small pieces for friends and dedicated fans. He also taught courses on building proper tattoo machines and tattoo etiquette and hygiene.

Lyle tattooing a customer

Lyle was one of the most outspoken male tattoo artists who were pro tattooing women, and women becoming tattoo artists. When asked about what helped tattooing gain such rapid popularity he said “Women’s liberation! One hundred percent women’s liberation! That put tattooing back on the map. With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they so desired. It increased and opened the market by 50% of the population — half of the human race! For three years, I tattooed almost nothing but women. Most women got tattooed for the entertainment value…circus side show attractions and so forth. Self-made freaks, that sort of stuff. The women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form.”

Lyle was also a huge advocate for the normalization of tattooing and is famous for saying “Tattoos aren’t meant for everybody, and they’re too goddamn good for some people.”

Lyle’s famous business card

Another of my favourite quotes of his reads thus, “Tattoos are travel marks, stickers on your luggage. Tattoos are special, you have to go off and earn them. You can go into a jewelry store and buy a big diamond and slip it on your finger and walk out. It’s not like that when you go into a tattoo shop and pick a big tattoo and pay for it. Now you got to sit down and take it.”

Old school Lyle flash

This is something I strongly believe in. When people ask me why I get them if they hurt so much, I say it’s part of the experience. And if someone says “just use a numbing cream”, I say you have to earn that tattoo. If you can’t take it, don’t get one.

Old school Lyle flash

Lyle will be greatly missed by his friends, family, and those in the tattoo community. Do yourself a favour and get yourself a piece from his flash in the near future to keep his work alive.

Old school Lyle flash