For decades, Bill Salmon was one of the premier tattoo artists of San Francisco. A native of Troy, N.Y., Salmon left New York to go to San Francisco in his 20s. There he worked in a music store and got his first tattoo at age 24. In an interview with V. Vale published for RE/Search publications “Modern Primitives”, Salmon recalled,
“I was working at Colombia Music on Market St. and just wandered into Lyle Tuttle’s tattoo shop nearby on my lunch hour and got a rose - I’d never even seen a tattoo shop before. I didn’t get it on my shoulder because I didn’t know if I wanted anybody to see it or not; I got it on my hip. Then, it was so exciting I had my pants down more that week than the entire previous year, showing off my new tattoo to people!”
Bill Salmon became an enthusiastic tattoo collector and eventually went on to cover his body with work by 120 artists including Don Ed Hardy, Filip Leu, Greg Irons, Zeke Owen, Hanky Panky, and Horiyoshi III to name but a few. It wasn’t until 1982 when he attended the Queen Mary Tattoo Expo that Bill Salmon decided to pursue a less mainstream career. Ed Hardy told him to start drawing, and from there he learned the craft of tattooing from Hardy and other local masters.
His career as a tattooer began at a shop where artists Dean Dennis, Chuck Eldridge and Terry Tweed were working. The apprentice had left, and Salmon replaced him.
“That’s how I got my start” Salmon tells V. Vale “I learned the basic American style - designs emanating from Sailor Jerry, Greg Irons, Mike Malone, Hardy’s early flash and learned the designs that the punk scene wanted, all the way up to H.R. Giger designs.”
Ed Hardy invited Bill to work at Realistic Tattoo in 1984, where he met Filip Leu of the renown Leu Family Irons. A few years later in 1991, Salmon and his wife, fellow tattoo artist Junko “Junii” Shimada, opened the Diamond Club, his private tattoo studio. Located at Broadway and Van Ness Avenue, its motto was “Folk Art Tattoos by Tattooed Folks”. The studio opened to the general public in 2004
“It wasn’t about making money. He cared about the customer. If there was the slightest doubt, he would send the customer away and tell him to come back when he was sure.” - Junii Shimada
Salmon specialized in flora and fauna, and puns. He saw a patch of skin as a potential for art - even his Mom’s. She received two tattoos from her son, a heart and a chrysanthemum.
In addition to tattooing, Bill Salmon was also an accomplished musician. He enjoyed playing the saxophone, flute and guitar.
“He was a visionary and he was super positive, with a great sense of humor,” said his mentor, longtime friend and fellow San Francisco tattoo artist Ed Hardy. The giant feline on Salmon’s chest and a giant fish stretching from Salmon’s back to his right leg and down to his foot were tattooed by Hardy.
“He was always sensitive to the needs of his customers. He wanted to tattoo what they wanted, not what he wanted.” - Ed Hardy
Bill Salmon died of cancer on January 18, 2019, in his San Francisco home. He was 68 years old and tattooed his final tattoo, a flower, in 2018 before retiring.