Bill Hill built his first tattoo machine at age 14 and began experimenting tattooing on himself and his friends in a tiny tattoo shop set up in his bedroom closet. His first tattoo was a girl's name, his second tattoo was covering it up. He never saw a tattoo studio until 1972 at age 17, when he walked into one- and knew at that moment that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
With 1,000's of photos published in Tattoo Magazine, Skin Art, Easyriders, In The Wind, Iron Horse, Outlaw Biker and Biker Lifestyle, Bill soon found shooting cover photos the most rewarding. The chrome 1966 shovelhead motorcycle he’s owned for over 37 years has been the centerfold and on the cover of more magazines than any other motorcycle to this date.
After Bill tattooed Mike Ness of Social Distortion he went on tour with them. He also shot tattooed bands such as White Zombie, The Cadillac Tramps, The Alley Boys and Mud Helmet. Brian Stezer from The Stray Cats Still stops by now and then. Bill was on the front page of the first Tattoo magazine ever printed. He also had 38 photos on the inside. There were no tattooist credits back then. He fought for years with the editors to get not only photo credits but tattooist credits also because people wanted to know who did the artwork they were looking at.
Bill went on to become the studio and cover photographer for Skin Art Magazine, Tattoo Expo, Tattoo Tour, Tattoos for Men, and Tattoos for Women. He has over 40 magazine covers and centerfolds to his credit. His mentor in the world of photography was Billy Tinney (Easyriders top Photographer). Helping Billy in the studios they would set up in hotel rooms at tattoo conventions taught him a lot about shooting layouts for the magazines. Bill got so close and spent so much time with Billy he would refer to him as his "dad".
When he wasn’t traveling, Bill tattooed his subjects, and this developed into a very busy career of tattooing. His whole body is covered in mostly black and gray tattoos. Why mainly black and gray? Bill says it seems to be so much more realistic, showing the detail and true depth and dimension of the art work.
Wild Bill is both a tapestry of artwork and an artist- winning awards in both categories, plus for his business. He has been named Best Tattooed Male at Tattoo Conventions four times. He has attended over 50 shows and has a whole wall of trophies that he received for his tattoos. The shop was named Sacramento's Number One Tattoo Studio of 2008 by the Sacramento Business Journal. Also Sacramento Magazine has named his studio “Best Tattoo Studio” ten years running.
He has attended over 50 tattoo conventions and has a whole wall of trophies that he received for his tattoos, including:
Bill entered and won the logo contest in 1984 for the anniversary logo on Roseville’s outgoing mail cancellation mark, so all the outgoing mail bears his artwork.
Pain: This sensation is one feared by many people who are wishing to get a few tattoos of their own. When asked if it hurts, Bill says, "Of course it does. Is it unbearable? No." In fact, there is a common misconception that it hurts less if you’re drunk. This is untrue. When you’re drunk, you focus on the immediate sensation, but when you’re sober you can focus on other things. The stinging sensation diminishes after several minutes, and the area being tattooed becomes numb. Afterward the skin is only slightly red and itchy, and that lasts for only a few days. After a while it can even become addicting. Bill says, "Most people after three tattoos, they’re hooked."
With a love of electronics and tinkering passed down from his father, he built his first tattoo machine at age 14 out of wood and a doorbell buzzer. Working out of a little tattoo shop in his bedroom closet he started to use plastic and then aluminum for his machines. Believing that a steel frame would have a loss in quality because the magnetic memory (becoming magnetized) would distort the electromagnetic field generated by the coils, led him to never use anything but aluminum machines to tattoo his whole career.
He found that hanging out exchanging ideas and picking the brains of every older more experienced tattooist and machine builders he met let him to come up with his own concepts of how machines should be built. The aluminum machines he was building were some of the lightest around. Many other tattooists from other states and countries had him build machines for them. He has over 100 machines in his collection- mostly aluminum, single coil or custom one-of-a-kind machines. He has become somewhat of "a connoisseur of fine aluminum machinery".
Bill moved into an upstairs storefront on Vernon Street around 1974. At first it was just him tattooing; now there are 12 full time artists. Bill now reflects: "It took many years of 10-12 hour days and hard work to get where I am today, make no mistake about that. I drew every spare moment I had, a lot of the time with a pen, so it was a lot like tattooing because there is no eraser. But pencil will always be my favorite medium. I liked the depth and dimension that could be achieved by making shadows in grays.”
At age 18 he got tattooed in Sacramento by Broadway Bob, and realized right away that wasn’t quite the style he was after: "Then I Met Pete Stevens and started getting a lot of work at his “East Coast Studio” in Sacramento on 16th + H Street by Pete Stevens, his partner Dennis and Bill Liberty. I remember getting tattooed by Bill Liberty and showing him my drawings and the tattoo machines I had built with aspirations of opening my own tattoo shop. I told him, all I need now is some people to practice. He told me with the art you’re doing, that shouldn’t be a problem. He was right. He also suggested I find a town that had no tattoo shop to open up my own place".
Bill decided on Roseville, Calif. because it had never had a tattoo shop. He didn’t want to step on the toes of anyone that had helped me. He disdains the mentality of many of the new-generation tattooists that have no respect for the people that gave them an opportunity to learn the art of tattooing. "I often wonder if they know how bad it makes them look when they open up right down the street from established shops (that they tattooed in or even learned to tattoo in), using the owners contacts, connections and methods- hoping to cash in on their success.
It just does not work that way, and they will realize that when someone that works for them opens up down the street. I can’t help but wonder if someone says 'nice tattoo, who did it?' -if they're honest and say it was done right down the street. I will always respect and be forever grateful to the people that I learned from and that have helped me further my career."
Bill then met Kevin Brady and liked his style of custom tattooing. Kevin's policy of not wanting to tattoo the same thing on two people impressed him. Kevin Brady had gone on the road with some rock and roll bands and was very hard to get in touch with. "He started making trips to my studio to work on my left thigh. One day he spent 10 hours on a large roller-skating skeleton on my leg. I told him I wanted to get some of that oriental style of full body tattooing. Kevin showed me the book The Tattooist with the work of Don Ed Hardy in it. The photos of his work were awesome, unlike anything I had seen before".
Thinking he needed an Asian tattooist to achieve the oriental look, Bill found Pinky Yang of Alameda. "While he was tattooing on me he advised me to go see Ed Hardy if I wanted that oriental style. Well that’s all it took. I tracked down Ed in San Francisco at his studio called Tattoo City. He was booked up but he introduced me to Bob Roberts who showed me a calendar with a black & gray tattoo of a girl pulling down her pants with a tattoo on her leg. It was done by Jack Rudy. The moment I saw it, I knew that’s the style I wanted to learn to do more than the oriental style.
Bob then showed me photos of his work. It was this fantastic, single needle fine line all black and gray tattooing. After Bob did some of that work on me I was hooked. I knew I would never be the same. I threw away all the color ink I had and never did another color tattoo again. I started making monthly trips to see Bob Roberts and we became very close. He was very open with me, always willing to show me the solution to any tattoo problems. I learned all about magnum needle clusters he and Ed were developing. I will always be grateful. Bob would take this small town boy out on the big city streets of San Francisco after tattooing working on me for hours, and show me things I had never seen before. I guess you could call that my coming of age".
Bill finally got in to see Don Ed Hardy: "I was very impressed with the full coverage body tattoos he was doing. My monthly trips started to include getting tattooed by Ed. A lot of the time I would be tattooed by Ed 6-8 hours and then get worked on by Bob 3-4 hours. That made for some long days for sure! It would leave me very drained but I was starting to get the coverage I was after.
Ed Hardy was humble, a no nonsense tattooist unlike any other I had ever met. Starting work at ten in the morning and wearing a tie while he worked was not what I was used to. His whole outlook on life was something I admired greatly. Ed told me that once you think you’re the best you stop learning. That’s something that has always stayed with me".
"Once my arms and both sides of my chest were completed I was ready for my ribs. I knew it was going to be a major undertaking. I wanted large, big work. At the time I belonged to 20+ tattoo clubs worldwide. I had been writing the president of the tattoo club of Japan and he had sent me some art work of a tattooed Japanese woman. The moment I saw it I knew that’s what I wanted on my rib cage. I took it to Ed and he worked on me a total of 8 hours that day. For the other rib cage I chose a tattooed woman drawn by Olivia. Ed spent 7 hours on that one. I will never forget the look on Olivia's face when she saw my tattoo for the first time at a tattoo convention in L.A. She loved it and said it was the first major tattoo of her art work she had seen. I noticed she spent a lot of time taking photos of it."
Bill began hanging out at Henry Goldfield's on the famous Broadway in San Francisco watching the work of Greg Irons. He was a well know comic book artist that had not been tattooing all that long, but was doing fantastic black and gray work. Bill was fortunate to be able to get some portrait work done by Greg before he passed away much too young.
In December 1981, Bill booked five full days with Ed “Don the Dog” Hardy: "I showed up and Told Ed that I wanted a demon riding a motorcycle all in black and gray covering my entire back and butt. Ed was known for doing the best color work in the U.S. He said if I wanted black & gray, I should go to L.A. and see Jack Rudy, 'he likes to do that type of high detail mechanical work'. I told Ed no, I wanted him to do it. After it was finished on the fifth day, Bob Roberts worked on my solar plexus. That made for a lot of tattoo work. I had never been so worn out in my life.
Afterwards Ed invited me to a dinner with about ten other people with body suits in progress at the Japan center. I was quite honored. A lot of Ed will always be with me, (not just because he did the majority of my tattoos) but because he had a very large impact on my life. Two of my Mentors that I owe a great deal to are Brian Everett and Jack Rudy. I first ran into Jack Rudy while he was tattooing on some young upstart named Brian Everett in a hotel room in Virginia. At the time I had no idea what a positive effect Brian would have on my life.
I went to visit Jack Rudy in East L.A. to do photos for a tattoo magazine story I was working on about him. We got along quite well and I felt his portfolio work was the Holy Grail of tattooing. Every time I went to draw or tattoo I would think, how would Jack do it? We shared a room at many tattoo conventions, tattooing well into the night. In fact while in Philadelphia we both tattooed on Jim “The Snake” Nyhan at the same time. I remember him saying after two or three hours- 'whose idea was this anyway?' Jack & I both looked at him and said at the same time- "yours!". Tattooing next to Jack was a great opportunity to watch him work up close. Finally he had some time for me and did an awesome portrait on my abdomen. One of the most talked about tattoos on me is the realistic portraits of my parents Jack did above my knee while we were in San Diego at a Convention.
I kept running into the work of Brian Everett at conventions and started to watch his work very closely. The realism in his work really stood out. I had him do a life size portrait that took almost nine hours on my thigh. Believe it or not, I had to stand the entire time! That tattoo has won more than ten awards.
“Brian and I got together at car shows, conventions or at my studio whenever he was available. He completed my right leg in fine line black and gray. Including: portraits of my parents' wedding day. He also did our shop logo, my 1915 ford, 1966 VW bus and my Panoz roadster on me. Finally getting my armpits done completed my body suit. Brian is a true family man with very high values that I admire greatly. His work on me blows people away both young and old. I truly feel he is one of the top black and gray portrait tattooists in the world.”
“Kim Forrest did my left lower leg and kneecap. Including portraits of my father and a life size Harry Houdini holding a king of clubs. Harley Haslem, another talented artist working here in my studio tattooed parts of my ankles and the tops of my feet. Also Jose who has been working for me a long time has been reworking the 35 year old stuff on my arms.”
Bill always thought he would be “glad when my body suit was finished. But I am always finding things I would like on me but don’t have the room anymore. So always be picky what you get tattooed on yourself."
Wild Bills assumed the role of "unofficial tattooist" for the Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team. With a good portion of past and current team members coming in and getting tattooed, including: Chris Webber, Jayson Williams, Keon Clark, Bobby Jackson, Scot Pollard, Brad Miller and Mike Bibby. Another NBA player that comes in getting large work is Robert Swift, the center for the Seattle Sonics.
Every February, the artists at Wild Bills work from 8 a.m. until midnight without pay. (a 16-hour tattoo marathon). All the days proceeds for tattoos, piercings, jewelry, shirts and even the artist's tips, for the U.C. Davis Children’s Hospital. They do it every year and so far have raised over $125,000.00 for the Children’s Hospital.
Brian Everett and Jack Rudy, two of Bill's tattoo mentors, got him started going to custom car shows, which became an obsession with him. Today his garage is full of custom show cars and bikes including the shortened 1966 Drag Racing Volkswagen Van, 1932 Ford Phaeton, 1915 Brass and Wood Model-T Speedster, 1959 Messerschmitt made in West Germany by the airplane company, 1989 Car Hauler that’s half a front wheeled truck welded to a Car Trailer, 2002 Panoz AIV Roadster, that Bill took driving lessons from Adam Andretti in at the track. The first Panoz Esperante (that Bill helped design) emerged out of the factory in 2005. It has an all aluminum frame, body, motor, tranny, and wheels. A hardtop version of this won the 24 hours of Le Mans race in France last year. The vehicle collection also includes: 1964 Amphicar, 2012 Lincoln MKX, 1954 Porsche Spyder, A chromed 1966 Shovelhead (Bills owned for over 40 years) an ¾ sized old school chopper, three custom built Mini Bikes, two mini cars and a 1959 Nash Metro.
Some of Bill’s other interest in include doing close up magic (he is a member of “The International Brotherhood of Magicians” and “The Society of American Magicians”) He also collects tin toy robots from the 1940s-50s with a large collection to show for it. His passion for Auto Cross and racing his cars at the track at Laguna Seca is still strong.
If you want to see more, be sure to check out the web site: WILD-BILLS.com