As Kaze Gallery prepares to close, co-owners William Thidemann and Sandi Calistro are splitting up to open two new tattoo shops in Denver. Last month we spoke with Calistro, who will open Ritual Tattoo & Gallery. This week, we caught up with Thidemann, who is equally busy with his preparations for Mammoth American. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Thidemann has been tattooing for more than two decades. He shared with us his thoughts on art school, the influence of his painting in his work as a tattoo artist, and the details on his new shop.
Westword: How long have you been in Colorado?
William Thidemann: I've been here since '97. I originally moved out here and started working at Boulder Ink; I was there for about three years. Then I came down to Denver and I helped start Th'ink Tank, and I was there for about eight years and then I went to Kaze. I've been tattooing about 21 years.
Is the industry a lot different now from when you started?
Yes. It is much, much, much different. It's about fifteen times the size, number one. There's a lot more artists. There used to be like a handful in each town, so you used to have three or four shops, and now you have ninety, which is crazy. And of course it's more public now, with people being tattooed all over the place.
What drew you to tattooing in the first place?
Well, I had my first tattoo when I was like thirteen, a little hand-poked thing on my finger and on my arm. That was interesting to me. I was a little punk-rock kid, so it was natural. And then I started playing with bands and what-not, I went to art school, the whole time I had tattoos. I had my forearm tattooed when I was probably a little too young as well, one of those hand-poked tattoos. And I just happened to be around some really good people, too. I got to be around this guy Crazy Eights who was a big guy in Virginia back then, who ended up moving up to Canada, and this guy Bernie Luther was there, and I got to meet him way before I got into tattooing. And so, since they were big and famous and what-not, it kind of piqued my interest. And eventually a roommate of mine who was a tattooer, he kind of suggested I jump into it, so that's how it started.
Do you think having gone to art school helps you be a better tattoo artist?
It's 50-50. Having a crew of people around, if you have a good crew, is helpful. But if it's just the skill set -- sometimes art school is a little, I don't know, they're not classical enough in their training. They're a little too wishy-washy and feely, like, "Oh, man, this big turd on a canvas is really valuable because I feel something about it." It becomes so not about technique. There are some people in art school who are super focused on technique. The printmakers, I found them to be really pragmatic. And I was lucky enough to have some teachers who were like, "You need to do it this way before you break the rules." Tattooing is so graphic that it was lot more direct than art school. Overall, it taught me more about drawing, to be honest. But the art school thing, in my experience, yeah, it helped out a little. If nothing else, it was kind of like a self-identifier, because the new wave of kids was like the black T-shirt-wearing punk kids going to art school and tattooing at the same time, so it identified me as being part of that genre.
Your art has a lot of cool imagery, like people turning into trees. What are some themes you explore with your art?
Life out of death, regeneration, coming into being, things like that -- transformative kind of things, which also relate to tattooing. People get that kind of stuff as tattoos as well.
Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with William Thidemann.
What are some differences between working as a tattoo artist and as a painter?
People. You don't have to deal with people when you're a painter. You can just hide out, drink coffee all day, stay in a pair of sweatpants and hide out from the world, and then go out to an art show and act weird, and that's your life. Tattooing, you're completely in the midst of dealing with people, people's demands. Canvases don't walk away, whereas people do. So there's different constraints. But theme-wise they seem to, weirdly, have come together a little bit at this point. When I first started, they were in completely different rooms.
What's your style of tattooing?
I used to like Japanese stuff a lot, but I never tried to do super-traditional Japanese. I did an Americanized version. Then I started to get into more, I don't know, just darker, like things that I was exploring in my paintings. I had a guy who was kind of my mentor, he suggested, "Well, why are you painting all that stuff and never tattooing it?" And I was like, "I don't know, people don't want people growing into trees or upsid- down birds tied to stuff, or things like that." So he told me to just try it and I did. And people did want it, which was surprising. Lately it's gone more and more towards that.
I also like hearing people's ideas, because their personal symbols, they might not be the same things that I come up with. Maybe somebody doesn't tell me exactly what to do, but they say, "This thing resonate with me" or "This thing was important to my mother," or something from their family's farm, or some image that comes up from their personal history. Just dealing with that and learning to bounce ideas off people is sort of fun, and it's always been really interesting.
Can you tell me about the plans for the new shop?
Hopefully, we will be open on March 1. Me and Sandi lost our lease at the other place, so we had to split. We had a really great time at Kaze, but obviously when you lose your lease you don't have a choice. We're splitting into two shops. I already checked out Ritual, which she's got going on, and that's going to be great. Over here, on Tennyson Street, we got this place. We're gonna have artists and we're gonna have a small gallery up front. The name of the shop is Mammoth American. Right now, Matt Hays and Michael Martinez are going to be here, and then eventually John Clements is going to be here, and maybe one more, but we're going to wait to announce that.
We're going to have our grand opening on the first Friday of May; we're giving ourselves a couple months to settle in and get everything tidied up. It's going to be an extension of Kaze, just like I'm sure Sandi's shop is gonna be. Nothing much is going to be too different. We have different spaces, we have a more fun neighborhood to be in. There's obviously more people here. But aside from that, it's going to be the same working scenario, except we have one guy who's going to devote himself to walk-ins, so people can get stuff a little quicker instead of having to wait a few months. I'm pumped about it. We got this big house, so it's pretty perfect.
Is there anything else you like to do aside from art?
Art does seem to consume most of my life at this point. Art and travel. I like to travel as much as I can, while still keeping a good solid base here. So I'm here most of the time, but I try to get out for quick weekenders to do business trips or conventions or whatever. It's good to get outside Colorado as well, because we're kind of like a land island, which is really cool in a way but also limits your influences. So it's good for people here to get out, and a lot of good tattooers out here, they tend to be nomadic. They have their base, then they split, get inspired from somewhere else a little bit and bring it back to Colorado. And then Colorado, there's enough talent here that once you have any little bit of influence dropped in the mix, it incites a bunch of cool stuff.
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