Tattoo artist A.J. McGuire on perfect lines, life lessons and Bruce Wayne

A.J. McGuire is a perfectionist when it comes to tattooing.
A.J. McGuire is a perfectionist when it comes to tattooing.

For A.J. McGuire, it all comes down to lines. Originally from Buffalo, New York, McGuire studied drawing and printmaking in college and developed an affinity for line drawing. He eventually applied his talent to tattooing, and he's been working as a tattoo artist for five years -- for the past year at Marion Street Tattoo. Westword recently sat down with McGuire to talk about creating perfect lines, the importance of life lessons and his cat, Bruce Wayne.

See also: Tattoo Talk: Ryan Willard on hard work, Denver's tattoo scene and Abraham Lincoln

Westword: You've been at Marion Street for about a year, correct? What were you doing before that?

A.J. McGuire: I was working at another shop in Aurora. I was there for about four years. I helped open it and I stuck it out all the way through, and then I decided it was time for a change, so I could learn from some new artists.

How did you get into tattooing?

I've always been into drawing, ever since I was born, basically. I've always loved line drawing, specifically. So after I graduated from college, I was screen-printing, and I had a sculpture job where I was sculpting ceramic pieces for buildings, and I loved it. But one of my friends was like, "Man, you should tattoo because you love line-drawing so much." And I was like, "I've always wanted to do it, I think I'm gonna try it." I kind of taught myself, and then, after a year or so of that, I decided to get an apprenticeship, and it's been going great ever since.

When you were going to school, did you think you might end up tattooing?

It was definitely a thought. I was thinking I'd either try that or I was actually thinking about being a teacher. But I felt like the mundane, day-to-day life, everything being the same all the time, would be lame after a while. And I also hate getting up early, so I thought, "Tattooing sounds way cooler." I get to talk all day, which I love, meet new people, which is so much fun, draw pictures and hang out with my buddies.

Did you find any aspects that were really different from what you expected?

I just think the whole process of it is so much more challenging than it looks when you're watching someone else do it. Keeping the skin tight is one of those things that people don't fully understand, and that can make all the difference between your tattoo looking super-clean and really crappy. And just in general, the time it takes to do it. I mean, I understand all of this now, but when I began, it was kind of overwhelming how you have to put 110 percent in all the time and you have to really work to do the best you can with every single tattoo. It's going to be out there in the world and other people are going to ask, "Where did you get that?" And you want them to be asking because they want to come get a tattoo from you.

Being relatively new to the industry, how do you keep up with the more experienced artists?

I try to just make sure every tattoo I do is solid as fuck. I like to make all my colors really bold and popping, and I call myself a "line-work Nazi" because I really try to make every line I do as perfect as possible. I'm not slow but I also don't rush. I put 110 percent into it and try to make it as good as possible.

Do you think your degree helps you to be a better artist?

I think to some extent it helps because I had to learn about color theory and I had to study a lot of the masters. I know a lot about fine art, and I think that helps a lot when you feel humbled by them because they're so amazing, and you're just like, "All right, I'll take what I can from this and apply it to my style of art." Continue reading for the rest of our Q&A with A.J. McGuire.  

McGuire likes to work on intricate tattoos with a lot of lines.
McGuire likes to work on intricate tattoos with a lot of lines.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

As far as painting, I love Paul Cézanne, Picasso, Dalí, all those classics dudes. But now, as far as tattoos go, there's one dude named Shaun Topper. I love his style because it's so clean and his colors are so crisp. He does a lot of line work that's colored and he fills it in, and it's just...I hope I'm as good as him some day. Also, Ryan [Willard]. I learn a lot from Ryan because he's just such a good artist all around -- painting, drawing, tattooing. It's just amazing to watch him work and be able to pick up stuff up from him every day, and I really appreciate everything he's done for me.

What would you say your style of tattooing is?

It's tough to say because I'm kind of all over the map. I love doing really small, intricate tattoos that have tons of line work, but I also love doing the really bold, traditional style where everything is simplified but really colorful with big, fat lines. I like a lot of lines. My style is getting some line work in there, making it clean.

Do you do a lot of drawing outside of tattooing?

I wish I did more. I play indoor soccer, I play broomball, I like to run 5ks, ride bikes and spend time with my lady and our pets, so I do draw quite a bit but not as much as I wish I did. There's not enough time in the day.

I heard you have a cat named Bruce Wayne. Do you get to do a lot of superhero-themed tattoos?

Not as much as I would like to. I have a Batman PEZ dispenser and I have Bruce Wayne's little kitten head tattooed, because I love him so much. I specially love Batman, and I would love to do more superhero tattoos.

So you're originally from Buffalo. Is there anything you really miss?

Food, I miss food. I miss the die-hard Bills fans. I miss my family and friends, obviously. But that's about it. I definitely don't miss the snow. I just love life in Denver with all the sun and everyone being so positive all the time. I just think it's the best place. I'll probably never leave.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

I just want to give a shout-out to the guys at the shop, because we all learn from each other every day and I think it's really important that we all like to help each other progress and we're not hating on each other. I appreciate all of those dudes. And I think it's been really cool watching the apprentices come up and get better every day, and I like helping those dudes out. It makes me feel good to be able to teach them and help them grow.

So you still ended up doing some teaching.

I think it's unavoidable in this life if you care. I think we all end up teaching life lessons every day.

For more information, check out Marion Street's website and Facebook page.

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Marion Street Tattoo/Gallery

2823 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206


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