Salmon Tattoos

On a recent Alaska ferry trip, I was lucky enough to meet two guys who found an unusual way to celebrate their relationship to salmon. Carl Webb and Steve Olson have emblazoned their very substantial biceps with elaborate salmon tattoos. I met Carl and Steve with help from Ray Troll, the brilliant Ketchikan artist and icthyophile whose work had inspired both men’s tattoos.

During a ferry stop in his home town, Ray took a bunch of us to the venerable Burger Queen café for a taste of classic Americana. By happy coincidence, Carl was in the adjoining booth, and with encouragement from us, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal an inked mural featuring all five Pacific salmon species.


Photo credits: Ray Troll

You couldn’t miss the self-satisfied grin on Carl’s face as he showed off that tattoo and savored our appreciation. His response to our admiring comments and questions revealed how much this man cared about salmon and how deeply these fish were woven into his heart.

“The story behind my tattoo is that I was always a fisherman. I grew up commercial fishing and then got into sport fishing.”

“But I moved away from Alaska four years ago and it was the first time I’d gone without catching salmon in the summer. So I felt really out of touch with it and this tattoo has been a way for me to keep fishing in my life while I was away.”

“I’ve got all five species of salmon — the king or chinook, the coho or silver, the sockeye or red, the chum or dog, and the pink or humpy — and they’re kind of arranged up my arm, like a salmon hierarchy with my favorites on top.”

He recited those names like a prayer, a holy chant, in the rough-hewn voice of a truck driver. And he wanted to point out that every salmon has two names, as if one name isn’t enough for something so profound and momentous in his world, or perhaps in the world as a whole.

I wanted hear a lot more from Carl Webb, but somebody noticed that we were about to miss the ferry departure. So I thanked him and rushed off toward the dock, thinking I’d never meet anyone else with the genius and imagination to put a salmon fishscape on his arm. . .

I was proven wrong within a few hours, when Ray Troll introduced his Ketchikan neighbor Steve Olson, First Engineer on our own Alaska ferry — the M/V TAKU.

Like Carl before him, Steve was more than willing to display his tattoo. He furled his work bibs and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a burly upper arm with ample room for artistic expression.


Photo Credit: Robert Nelson

Although the subject of Steve’s artwork was again salmon, his motif evoked the life cycle of a single iconic species — Sockeye. Up near his shoulder, a pinkish egg; beneath it a hatchling or alevin with its yolk sac; next a growing smolt or fry; then silvery sea-run adult; below that a green-and-scarlet spawner; then a skeleton mouldering away; and at the bottom another egg, the new generation.

Steve explained:

“I have two important things from my life tattooed on my arms. On one side I’ve got the Marine Corps…and on the other side I’ve got sockeye salmon.

“Sockeye paid for college. Sockeye paid for the birth of Eric and Nathan. Sockeye is the name of one of my boats. Sockeye are beautiful in the ocean, and when they come in to spawn they’re beautiful in green and red. They’re a work of art. Not one scale on a sockeye salmon is out of place.”

“He went on to praise the “awesome taste” of sockeye salmon, and the rich oils in their bodies, savored by people and craved by bears fattening for winter.”

So in a single day, I fortuitously encountered two men inscribed with exquisitely rendered images of wild salmon. Working guys, both of them, and in some ways formidable. But when they talked about salmon, and when they explained how salmon shaped and sustained their lives, you saw something that might not otherwise become visible — an abiding tenderness, gratitude, nostalgia, and pride in a way of life made richly possible by salmon.

By Richard Nelson, for SalmonWorld