Art has been a part of Sandi Calistro's life since her earliest memories. A painter and tattoo artist, Calistro is known for her whimsical style. She is the co-owner of Kaze Gallery, which will be closing soon, and is in the process of opening a new studio, Ritual Tattoo & Gallery, with local artist Missy Rhysing. We caught up with Calistro, who was covered in paint from working on that new studio, to talk about her plans for the following year, her experience traveling around the world, and her thoughts on tattooing and painting.
Westword: When do you expect the new studio to be ready?
Sandi Calistro: Honestly, we were shooting for February 1, but now it's looking like mid-February, maybe. We still have the second space open, Kaze Gallery, so we have time to kill if we have to. We'll see whenever we're done.
How did the move come about?
The building that we have now, which is right next door to Root Down, it was purchased by one of the owners of Root Down. I think initially they wanted to expand Root Down into that area. But they gave us like another year and that was six months ago.
Is the new studio going to be different from Kaze?
It's going to be different. We basically shot off into two different tattoo studios. William [Thiedemann] and I own Kaze Gallery, and he's opening a shop called Mammoth American Tattoo, and then Missy [Rhysing] and I are opening Ritual, so it will be quite different. He's got a space over on Tennyson, it's like a house converted into a retail space, so it's really cool. And we've got the space over here. It's going to be a little different because it's not quite as open as Kaze was. We're still going to try and roll with the gallery stuff. That's our thought; we'd love to have gallery shows there still.
How did you get into art and tattooing?
As far as art goes, I was interested in art since I was a toddler, from the first time I saw the first piece of framed artwork that inspired me. After that I took as many art classes or whatever that I could. I never went to art college, though. But I've been doing art for my whole life. As far as I can remember, the first thing that sparked my interest as far as art was just seeing a framed piece of artwork that made me feel something. And I think that's the moment that I decided that I wanted to do it.
What was the most challenging part of the process of learning how to tattoo?
I think it's just the fear of the permanence of it, because you're obviously expected to do a perfect piece of artwork on someone's skin. It's just a lot of pressure. I think at first that's probably what I had the most trouble with. I got super nervous with the first, probably, six tattoos. I was beyond nervous, like shaking and everything. Luckily I got over that. My brother's got my first tattoo on his leg and you can see it was a little shaky. I fixed it later, but he had some squiggly lines on there. That's the worst part, I'd say.
As someone who does fine art as well as tattoos, obviously besides the canvas, what are some differences? Do you have to be in a different mindset to do each?
Yeah. I'd say the first thing I think of when you ask that is you're definitely catering to their thought of their design. When you're doing your own canvas piece of artwork, you're generating your original idea from your own head, but when you're doing it on a person you're collaborating with them almost. You're taking their idea and your vision and combining the two, so that's definitely a huge difference, just in the artwork itself. And then your tools are extremely different; you're using a machine, and the weight of the tool is a huge difference. And just the application is weird, making someone bleed and having someone in pain is a little weird. I have a harder time phasing that out than some people do. If someone's in pain I'm like, "Oh, are you okay?" But other than that, it really is the canvas, doing a piece of artwork on a canvas, versus the blood and the tattoo machine and a human being, you know?
Continue reading for more of the Q&A with Calistro.
You have a pretty recognizable style. How did you develop that signature style?
I was super into anime -- not any kind of specific anime, but anime in general, or manga, stuff like that. I think someone gave me a manga book a long time ago and that's the first time I saw like big eyes. Just like that cartoony style, initially, when I was younger, I loved it. The graffiti style was a huge influence when I was younger. But I think I developed that style when I was, probably, just out of high school. So I think it was a mix of all those things: graffiti, manga, anime and the inspiration of other artists. And then later on, I started getting influenced by a million different things, so I was trying to roll everything I saw that I liked into my style.
I read that you've traveled to a lot of different countries tattooing; what's that experience like?
It's radical. I've just done a few different conventions around the world. I think my favorite part of that is meeting other artists I wouldn't have the opportunity to meet here, and they've become very influential in my artwork and my drive. Everybody is super-nice in the tattoo industry that I've met in my travels, which is awesome. There are some amazing artists in Europe, so that's huge; I get to meet those people and sometimes work with them and see their work ethic. Conventions are interesting because they cram a lot of tattooers into one -- it's like a typical convention where there's a booth setup and stuff, but there are hundreds of them so you get an opportunity to meet all these artists that you wouldn't usually have an opportunity to meet. They're all in the same place and they're all creating amazing art, so it's like being in art class, but cooler.
Are there any artists right now who really inspire you?
As far as the ones I've met in my travels, there's a girl in Essex, England, her name is Becca, she goes by Tiny Miss Becca. Her style is really awesome. I got tattooed by a guy in Berlin, his name is Lars and he's a pretty renowned and phenomenal artist and a super good guy. There are a lot. There's a girl, Gwen Douglas, I think I met her in Montreal, she's an amazing artist as well. My co-worker right now, Missy Rhysing, she's got a crazy style and she's a workhorse, so she's pretty influential right now. Obviously, I'm opening a business with her, so I think she's pretty swell.
What's your favorite place that you've visited?
In my last trip I went to Italy; I didn't work there, though. I did some painting when I was there, but I didn't do any tattooing. But I went to Positano, which is on the Amalfi Coast. That was the most gorgeous place I've been to. I went to Naples, Rome, Florence and then back to Naples and came back home, and that was awesome. Before that, I went to Prague, and I think Prague is really awesome, too.
Do you have anything planned for this year? I'm sure you're pretty busy with the opening of the new studio.
Yeah, just because of that I decided to take a year off. I'm not traveling for work for a year -- I haven't done that for years, so it's long overdue. I need to stay put and make sure this all goes smoothly. I'm really excited about it, though, so it's a good distraction. Usually I'll stay put for a month or two and then I'll get a little restless and I'll have to do some traveling. But I'm occupied right now.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I'm excited for the new shop, I think that this is my opportunity to really open a place that's more of my vision. Kaze was the coolest shop I've worked at thus far, and it really prompted a vision of what I wanted my own shop to be, and that's what Ritual is going to be. Missy and I have a similar vision for the spot, and we're just super-excited about it. We're going to have some art openings and stuff, and we just want people to come check it out.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.