Tattooing A to Z #18: Doc Forbes

Doc Forbes was a pioneer of Canadian tattooing, he was born in 1900 and died on Lyle Tuttle’s birthday, on October 10, 1977. He was well known for his classic Americana style of tattooing. He began tattooing in the 1920s and tattooed in British Columbia in the 1950s through the 1970s. He learned to tattoo from Frederick Baldwin, the first tattooist in Canada to use an electric tattoo machine.

In 1958 Toronto tattoo artist Sailor Joe Simmons said there were only three tattoo artists then working in Canada: himself, Charlie Snow in Halifax and Doc Forbes, “out near the navy base on Vancouver Island”.
In 1964 Doc Forbes moved to Vancouver, setting up his shop on Davie Street and tattooing there until his death in 1977. He had a great run on the West Coast and coincidentally his last shop was a few doors down from the famous Thomas Lockhart’s West Coast tattoo shop who maintains many archives of Doc Forbes stuff.

Forbes was a legend among Canadian tattooists and trained a number of them, including San Francisco tattooist Pat Martynuik. A lot of Doc Forbes artwork is in Lyle Tuttle’s collection. Unfortunately in the early 70’s Doc Forbes suffered from a stroke and became depressed destroying a lot of his designs. Doc was a bit of a media whore so there is lots of great pictures of him from the 50’s floating around.

Doc Forbes, watercolour by Pepe
Doc Forbes, watercolour by Pepe

A must-watch, absolute gem of tattoo history can be found in a 1964 profile on Doc Forbes titled The Diary of a Tattooist. CBC “20/20” host Harry Mannis visited Doc Forbes at his studio in Victoria, B.C. and interviewed the legendary tattooer, as well as his clients, who include a mother of four, an 82-year-old man, “Doc’s lady friend Helen,” and two sailors as they sit in Doc’s chair. Doc even tattoos Mannis (without ink), so the host can understand the feeling. There are just so many fascinating elements to the 32-minute video, including Doc’s discussion on hygiene and safety in tattooing, how he mixes pigments and runs his machine a certain way for particular artistic effects, how his clientele is not limited to sailors but all kinds of people, and so much more.