For the past six months, Westword has been talking to tattoo artists around town, exploring the talent and diversity of the Mile High ink scene. While there are different styles and philosophies, most artists agree that succeeding in the tattoo industry requires passion, creativity and hard work. Here are five of our favorite interviews and the artists' thoughts on the art of tattooing.
Westword: 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?
Sandi Calistro: 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?
What would you say are some challenges to being a tattoo artist?
Andy Canino: Trying to continue to grow. Trying not to stagnate. I've worked around people in the past who have lost their passion for tattooing. And it's not a challenge for me to maintain passion, but it is a challenge to not get comfortable -- to continue to grow, continue to learn, continue to study different types of tattooing, the stories behind certain styles like Japanese or American or otherwise. Just continuing to constantly feed your brain and just live tattooing. You have to sacrifice a lot of stuff to do that. When kids are first getting into tattooing, I'd say, "You probably want to just dump your boyfriend or girlfriend right now, because you're gonna live this." Sometimes that's a challenge for a lot of people; it's sometimes a challenge for me. Sometimes I'll take my focus away from tattooing and put it into a hobby, then I need to reevaluate what I'm doing and put it back into tattooing because it's the most important thing to me.
Continue reading for the rest of the Top Five Q&As.
Why did you decide to open your own tattoo shop?
Michael Pinto: I'm kind of a misfit. I didn't really fit in with one group of guys here or another group of guys there. I kind of had a vision of what I thought a tattoo shop is supposed to be like, what it's supposed to look like -- kind of romantic images in my head from times gone by, when tattoo shops were a little more dangerous or a little more scary. Maybe not dangerous or scary, but taboo. When you went into a tattoo shop, you felt like you were doing something cool, like you have a special place, this magic little world. It seems like some of that has been lost. People expect to be spoiled. It has changed a little bit. We have to be a little more customer service-oriented than in the old days. But I really think that doing good art should speak for itself. If your tattoo artist is a little gruff or a little gray, which most of us are -- I call it my home for wayward boys you got a bunch of guys in here and attitudes can fly a little bit, but I think the artwork speaks for itself. Everybody who works here does first-class tattoos. We all put real effort into being the best artists can we can and doing the best job that we can. I guess the question started with why I opened the shop. I wanted a place where guys like me could come and do work that matters.
It seems you 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?
Ryan Willard: 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, 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. The picture is way bigger than me and way bigger than this shop, and way bigger than our little worlds. 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. 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.
A lot of the people I've talked to say the industry has changed because tattoos are so prevalent now. Having been in the industry for a long time, is there anything you miss about the way it was when you got started?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Walter McDonald: There's definitely a nostalgia. It's way different, but it's even different from ten years ago. And then ten years before that it was different. There's certain things that I miss, but for all the things that I miss, there's new things about tattooing that I love. For instance, I love the competition that's bred out of social media and out of tattooers looking at each other's photographs on Instagram or on Facebook. Most people just copy, which is not bad, that's what every good artist does. But every once in a while, there's a breakthrough or something that happens that isn't planned, and I think that's good. It's good for the whole of tattooing, pushing tattooing to the next level or just making it better. Even if it's just reinventing the wheel.