Walter Maurice Lyons
By Carmen Nyssen
Born: 1872 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Died: 1952 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Burial: South Brisbane Cemetery, Plot 4B
Although of foreign origin, Prof. W. M. Lyons was one of America’s early West Coast tattooers.
Like many seaman of this era, Lyons learned to tattoo while working aboard ships. He came to the U.S. from Australia in 1896, when he was 24-years-old, by way of the Doxford, a barque carrying a load of coal to Astoria, Oregon. Rather than return home with the rest of the crew at the trip’s end, he stayed in the United States set on making a living as a tattoo artist.
According to a 1937 Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record interview, Lyons started his American tattoo career in Santa Rosa, California. This is where he met his wife Minnie (see picture), the mother of Laura (b. 1908, his stepdaughter), and his son Freddy Lyons (b. 1912).
While Lyons is difficult to find in early records, a border crossing document, dated November of 1906, notes that he’d previously resided in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Tattooer Lyons in San Francisco
As Lyons relayed in the Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record interview, he was tattooing in California at the time of the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, in April of 1906. He then lived in the city’s rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast, home to a myriad of typical red-light district establishments (opium dens, brothels, taverns, and tattoo shops) catering to a continual stream of in-dock sailors.
About the earthquake Lyons relayed:
“My wife and I hurled into the Street ….We lived at the corner of Jackson and Kearney streets. We heard a rumble like thunder far off. In the streets hundreds of people had gathered with only night clothes on. Our home commenced to rock and buildings tumbled down all around us. I rushed up stairs with my wife in between the shakes and we got dressed….”
As devastating as the earthquake was, it didn’t deter him from working in the city. A rare image in an April 1908 issue of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly depicts him tattooing in a booth on the San Francisco waterfront.
A business card from this same era, advertising tattoo outfits as well as gunpowder mark removal and tattoo removal, lists his address as 156 East Street (later Embarcadero) —located on the city’s eastern bay near the Ferry Building, once one of the busiest foot traffic areas in the world.
W.M. Lyons’ Tattoo Travels
A bit of an itinerant, Lyons worked in San Francisco only intermittently in the years following the earthquake. In 1910, he moved on to San Antonio, Texas. By 1913, he’d set up shop in San Diego, California, presumably with his wife Minnie at his side.
As the 1937 article noted, he did resume working in San Francisco during the filming of “The Last Night of the Barbary Coast;” he claimed he was the first tattoo artist ever to appear on the big screen. Unfortunately, no known copies of this 1913 film are known to exist.
Lyons’ Vallejo Tattoo Shop
Around 1914 or 1915, Lyons settled in Vallejo, just across the bay from San Francisco, where he opened a tattoo shop on Georgia Street -an avenue lined with billiards halls, diners, taverns, and shooting galleries that catered to nearby Mare Island sailors.
Quite unusually, the front cover of the Vallejo City Directory advertised his tattoo business.
Lyons: Australian Tattooer
In 1917, after 21 years in the United States, Lyons returned to Australia, where he went from billing himself as :
“America’s Premier Tattoo Artist” to “Australia’s Premier Tattoo Artist.”
From the 1920s to 1940s, Australian newspapers mention Lyons tattooing in various cities and traveling with a number of carnivals. As late as 1946, when he was 74 years old, he was tattooing at the Newcastle Amusement Park in New South Wales. He died several years later, in 1952, at the age of 80.
♣ Read this related Buzzworthy Tattoo History post about Walter Lyons’ involvement with the tattoo wars of Sailor Gus and Jack Julian