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

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Ryan Willard has been working non-stop since he started tattooing ten years ago. He's is the owner of Marion Street Tattoo (where yours truly got a tattoo a few months ago), which will be celebrating its fourth anniversary in April. Willard plans to spend the year traveling and tattooing across the U.S. and Germany; before he takes off, we caught up with him to talk about his background, his thoughts on running a business and the tattoo industry in Denver.

See also: Marion Street Tattoo becomes first "Certifiably Green" tat shop in Denver

Westword: Where did your interest in art begin?

Ryan Willard: My interest in art, I don't necessarily know where it began, as far as just art goes. I was like one of those kids who always liked drawing, always liked pictures, always liked coloring. It made way more sense to me than math.

What kind of stuff would you draw as a kid?

It's kind of funny, because I did a lot of similar stuff to what I do now. Like, I used to draw animals a lot, my cat. I grew up in southeast Michigan and I spent some time on a family farm -- a friend's family farm, I should say -- and so there's chickens and turkeys that I'd draw, like my mom still has pictures of when I was drawing that crap. And then pretty much I got into skateboarding really young -- I'm old, I'm 37 -- so, like, when I started skateboarding was before Thrash magazine was something you could find. Thrash magazine was like a super-edgy, scary magazine. So then immediately, as soon as I started skating and listening to punk rock music and stuff like that- -- which would have been probably when I was about ten years old, so about '85, '86 -- and I had an older brother, so it immediately went to like flames and skeletons and still all funny stuff. I just kind of continued to draw that kind of stuff, pretty much stuff that meant something to me back then, whether it be good or bad, you know?

What was the first tattoo you ever got?

The first one I ever got? The very, very first tattoo I ever got was, on my left arm, I got some horrible tribal when I was sixteen years old.

Do you remember the first tattoo you ever gave to someone?

I do, yeah. A friend of mine named Joel, in Detroit, Michigan -- that's pretty much where I spent my late teens, before I moved out West. Yeah, I basically did flames on his arm, and I did them -- I'll speak in layman's terms -- I did them in a very, very small needle grouping, that's something for very precise, fine-line stuff. And I basically did these huge flames on him, and we were supposed to do this little flame on this wrist, like this big, and then he was like, "Nah, just do it," and so I drew it all over. And he still has them to this day, and he won't let me cover them up. I've since fixed them, I've made them nicer, but he won't let me cover them up.

How did you get into the profession?

When I lived in Michigan, again, just being around a lot of punk-rock music and skateboarding and those kinds of people and stuff like that, everybody around me has been tattooed since I can remember, adults and everybody. It was one of those things that, everyone was like, "Oh, Ryan, you can draw real well, you should tattoo, you should tattoo." It wasn't until I worked in a little cafe that the owner of Eternal Tattoos -- his name is Terry Welker, he basically does ink worldwide now, he's huge, still based out of the area where I lived -- and he was like, "Hey, do you need an apprenticeship?" And then at that point I was doing a transition to moving out West -- I moved to Telluride, where I lived for about eight years -- I was getting ready to move and so it was, like, really bad timing. So I basically moved out West, now I'm in the middle of nowhere, where there's no tattooing, and he was always in the back of my mind. And I got tattooed ample times in those ten years, and then I finally was like, when I was about 27 years old, I was like, "All right, I'm gonna put my time in to do this." And I basically started driving up to Grand Junction and I found myself in a little crappy biker shop and I taught myself how to tattoo. I never had an apprenticeship. And then I worked with Matt Jones, who's basically a mentor, and he still owns a shop- -- now it's called Voodoo Circus. He's a great tattoo artist, he's traveled all over the world. I worked with him for about six years and it was super, super cool. And then I met -- am I rambling too much?

No. Please, go ahead.

I'm trying to do it in a timeline. And then I met the dudes from Th'ink Tank Tattoo at a convention and then basically I got my armpit tattooed by one of the dudes and I was chatting with them. And basically the owner of Th'ink Tank really wanted me to move over and do guest spots for them and then tattoo for them at the time. At that point my girlfriend was going to get her Ph.D. at the University of Denver so I found myself in Denver. I worked over there for about a year and a half and it just was a lot different than what I signed up for in terms of work. So I just decided to open like a small little private studio. I couldn't really find a place to hang my hat that I felt really, really comfortable in, you know? And that I could just do my thing. So I opened this little spot and then I have a couple people work here, and we're running it like a co-op, and it's good. Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Ryan Willard.

So you guys opened in 2011? Is that right?

2010. I opened it in 2010. It's four years this April coming up. It's crazy.

It seems you guys like to do things a little bit differently, like you're the first green tattoo shop in town and I know you have art shows and music events, so what's your philosophy for running the business?

I believe my life and what I do for work is like one. I've never been really good at being like a super-money business guy, make every cent I can. I've done other things with my life, worked a lot of labor jobs and stuff -- I'm more about doing the right thing. And it's definitely nice a lot of times, like helping out. I try to help and try to promote stuff like that. And I do it because I love it. I love art and I love music, I love the community, I love good things, I like people, I love the environment. It's just like a natural progression. I was grabbing a coffee and chatting with another business owner in town here and basically they were doing the green thing and I was like, "Why don't we do that?" It wasn't my idea; there's so much out there, like positive stuff that you can do and I try my best to be part of that. The picture is way bigger than me and way bigger than this shop, and way bigger than our little worlds. So I guess my philosophy is to try to be mindful and be present and at the same time have a really good time, you know what I mean? That's how I've done it.

I've been told on numerous occasions, by numerous people, "Oh, you should do this to make more money, you should sell this out of your shop." I'm not trying to do that. I really think, I really think there's something to be said about working really hard, putting your time in and doing it. I think a lot of people say that, but I can honestly say I work six days a week tattooing and working, if not seven days a week, for the last ten years, my whole tattoo career. That's exactly how I did it when I used to paint. And I paint at night, you know? I think you just gotta work. We're not here a long time, I try to make the best, have the most positive impact, leaving as little trace as possible of bullshit, you know? I don't know if that hits the question right, but that's probably my philosophy.

My mission statement has always been to just kind of try to help out. It's interesting, too, because once a month I have someone hit me up, they want to work here and stuff, and this shop could be ten times as big as it is. I could, as far as the business goes, just run it. And I'm not interested in doing that. I'm sure that's probably going to get laughed at or whatever, but I like just being solid and working hard. Who knows, maybe down the line maybe I'll open something somewhere else but, for now, it's cool.

Are there any local artists -- tattoo or any other media -- that you really like or that inspire you?

Yeah, as far as local, as far as tattoo artists, there are some I haven't met yet but their art just kind of inspires me. None of this is on a personal level, this is all just completely subjective. There's a guy named Curtis Burgess, he lives in Fort Collins, he's amazing. He's been tattooing since, I believe, '99 in Colorado. He's really, really good. Matt Jones, he's on the West Slope in Grand Junction, that guy is awesome and he's been tattooing, again, the better part of twenty years. Josh Ford, he's been around for a long time, he builds machines. I use his machines every day. Straight, super-solid dude, good tattoo artist. And there's a ton more. The good thing about Denver is, you gotta try hard to get a bad tattoo in Denver, I think. I really believe that. I think there are a lot of artists not doing what they're supposed to, doing crappy tattoos, for sure. But there's a lot of really, really good tattoo artists in this town, whether that be a good or bad thing. That's always very debatable. But that's my opinion. I think there's amazing artists. It's good stuff.

If you could tattoo a historical figure or celebrity and you get to chose the tattoo, who would it be?

I've been asked this question before. That's like a super-tough one off the cuff. I think, probably Abraham Lincoln. He was a pretty solid dude. He's a pretty amazing character and monumental, I guess, in terms of history. I don't know what I'd tattoo on him, it would be what he'd want. I would be interesting to see, I suppose. For more information on Willard and his shop, visit Marion Street Tattoo online or on Facebook.

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