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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