Artist Sandi Calistro on why tattoos are the most intimate form of art

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Sandi Calistro got her first tattoo in Maine when she was sixteen, and later decided to become a tattoo artist. Accompanied by her dad, she came to Colorado and sold her flash sheets (the sheets of art on the wall of a tattoo parlor) door-to-door at tattoo shops. A local shop bought her sheet and gave her an apprenticeship.

Now she owns and operates her own art gallery/tattoo shop, KAZE Gallery, with partner William Thidemann, and makes a living doing what she loves -- painting and tattooing. Castro took some time to talk to us about the importance of tattooing in her life and why community support is so essential for aspiring artists.

As a painter, do you think tattooing is a comparable art form? And, do you think tattoos are taken seriously as art?

I think tattooing is comparable to painting in the way that it is art on a canvas, but it's a huge deal compared to a painting. I mean, you're tattooing a person. It is what it is -- it's permanent and you consider that while you are doing it. So, it's really intimidating. But I definitely think that sometimes tattoos aren't as appreciated as they should be. Because if you really think about what it is, it's really the most intimate form of art.

When you started, were you comfortable with the needle?

No. Not at first. I think I got too "heady" about it. I was so focused on the fact that it was permanent, that I was tattooing on a person, and that it had to be perfect that it just overwhelmed me. I was crazy-nervous the first five tattoos I did. I was shaking. I didn't think I would be able to do it at first, but luckily I got over it.

Are there people who can take the pain well?

Oh, yeah. Some people have amazing pain tolerance and some people have none. I'm really not that great at getting tattooed because it hurts really bad. I love how it looks but I'm not a fan of getting them. Sometimes it's like therapy and sometimes it just hurts too much.

Speaking of therapy, tattooing is a pretty cathartic art form, right?

Yes. I think it's extremely intimate. You are spending all this time with a person, and you are inflicting pain on them. Usually, too, it's like when you go to the hairdresser and tell them everything. That's why I feel like I befriend a lot of repeat clients. I've spent a lot of time with them and they've shared a lot with me.

People have a sense of being able to go through the experience and take it and then come out of it with something beautiful. People going through emotional trouble in their life will get tattooed and come out of it feeling better. And they get to talk to you about it, so it's like therapy.

Your paintings are pretty prevalent in Denver. Do you ever have people come in and want your paintings tattooed on them?

Yes, but I usually try to change them a little bit. Because if someone else were to take a painting to another tattooer to get it done, that person would make it their own, make it an original piece.

You're a pretty successful painter too -- how did you get started in that?

I was working at a shop called Twisted Soul, and Kevin Strawbridge, who worked there, told me he would be my manager. He pushed me to start painting all the time. It's something I really wanted to do and tattooing and painting really balance each other out. They feed each other. I don't think one could be without the other.

You've had a lot of support in the community -- do you think that's important for making it as an artist?

Yes, definitely. The people I met at Twisted Sol are the ones who helped become a tattoo artist. They are the ones who gave me the self-esteem, the confidence, I needed to become a better tattoo artist. I met Alicia Cardenas and Kevin Strawbridge there, who both now own Sol Tribe -- Kevin's still my manager to this day and Alicia helped me pick out my gallery. Also, I've had a lot of help from from the people around me.

Do you think Denver is a good place to find that sort of support?

Absolutely. Denver is a little hidden gem. The art scene is amazing, and the tattoo scene is impressive. When I got more involved in the art scene in Denver I was pleasantly surprised how many amazing artists and galleries are here -- and there is a lot of support for the community. I'm a big fan of Denver.

Contact Calistro about her art, tattoo shop or gallery at sandicalistroart@gmail.com.

Check out Calistro's work at her solo show at Super Ordinary Gallery on January 14

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