A makeshift altar spills out the front door of Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing.
Bouquets of flowers rustle in the wind. Candle flames flicker, their wax pooling on the sidewalk. Offerings of fruit, photographs, crystals, and feathers are presided over by a portrait hanging on the storefront door: A depiction of Alicia Cardenas, the store owner and giant in the tattoo and body modification community, and among the victims killed in a Monday night shooting spree across the city that began at the Broadway tattoo shop.
The sacredness of the memorial fits the hallowed description Denver’s body art community discussed when commemorating the victims, the shop and the family created out of a reverence for ink on skin.
The community — comprised of walking canvasses and the artists who pierce and paint them — is in mourning after multiple tattoo artists were targeted this week in a shooting rampage spanning Denver and Lakewood that left six people dead including the gunman.
The tattoo shop, mourners said, is a temple where the oddballs gather to heal.
“It’s going to take a lot of time as a community to heal from this,” said Madison Lauterbach, a Denverite with eight facial piercings and several tattoos who frequented the first location of the shooting spree, Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing. “My hope is we continue to treat our home shops as the temples they are and we continue to treat our modification artists as the healers they are.”
“A place for the oddballs”
Among those healers killed in the shooting: Danny Scofield, an artist at Lucky 13 Tattoo and Piercing; Alyssa Gun Maldonado, the jewelry manager at Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing; and Cardenas, Sol Tribe owner and a matriarch in the industry, said Kacy Jonez, a tattoo apprentice who worked alongside Cardenas at Sol Tribe.
Sol Tribe and the shop’s first iteration, Twisted Sol, did things differently, Jonez said.
In a male dominated industry, Sol Tribe and its crew of employees, customers and fans made space for women, non-binary people, the LGBTQ community, people of color and anyone who felt a little different, Jonez said.
“Alicia and Alyssa were this matriarchal force the tattoo community needs desperately,” Jonez said. “She took me on to teach me how to tattoo, but she was also teaching me how to take a stand. It was a safe place. I could be brown. I wasn’t a toilet scrubber. I was an equal.”
The Sol Tribe staff would hold meetings about how to change the industry for the better and fight patriarchal attitudes that persisted, Jonez said.
“We didn’t need to dominate,” Jonez said. “We just needed a place, and that’s what the shop is. A place for the oddballs and the people who didn’t fit in.”
Lauterbach, a 26-year-old Denverite, grew up fascinated by body modification. She felt out of place until finding a home in the tattoo and body modification community with a home base of Sol Tribe where she received her forehead dermal — a piercing she begged Cardenas to administer because she was only 17-years-old but accompanied by her mother.
“It’s become a defining feature of who I am,” Lauterbach said. “Alicia impacted me so deeply with just that one piercing.”
For Lauterbach, the tattoos and piercings are art that make her feel beautiful.
“I used to hate my thighs when I was a teenager,” Lauterbach said. “I remember being in the bathtub at 15 and calling my mom in and sobbing and begging her to let me get liposuction on my thighs.”
Instead, Lauterbach’s thighs became the backdrop to several tattoos — a rainbow trout, a woman wearing a deer headpiece, a heart surrounding the word “no” and more.
“It’s become really difficult to hate my body because it’s covered in art that I love,” Lauterbach said.
“More than just a shop”
The tight-knit tattooing community is made up of artists and customers who have worked and played together for years, members said.
“The massive community that we have has just been rocked,” said James Clarke, a tattoo artist who used to work with Scofield. “Our community is devastated.”
Krisha Jeannoutot, who owns Phantom 8 Tattoo & Piercing in Englewood with her husband, Chris, started piercing in the 1990s around the same time as Cardenas who she considered an industry peer.
Jeannoutot said Monday’s loss was personal.
“It’s family beyond family,” Jeannoutot said.
Tattooing has deep roots in ancient artistry and Indigenous practices, Jeannoutot said, which Cardenas and Sol Tribe were adamant on preserving and celebrating.
“It’s a deeper connection,” Jeannoutot said. “It’s Indigenous people. It’s tribal.”
Alicia “Bruce” Trujillo, a Chicana working in Denver’s arts and music scene, said the Denver body modification community has space for everyone but that she particularly loved the environment Sol Tribe created.
Trujillo, who partook in Indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies with Gunn Maldonado, recounted Sol Tribe staff burning sweetgrass as Cardenas tattooed Trujillo’s palm with ancestral artwork.
“It was special,” Trujillo said. “Sol Tribe is an educational space. A space of ritual. It’s more than just a shop.”
Jher Clark, co-owner of Denver’s Landmark Tattoo, said Monday’s tragedy brought together colleagues across the industry as former coworkers gathered outside Sol Tribe to mourn.
Old friends hugged, traded memories, wept and were reminded of the passion for art that drove them into the industry in the first place.
“There’s definitely a feeling of family,” said Clark, who worked at Twisted Sol — Cardenas first tattoo shop she opened in 1997.
Holidays were often spent at Cardenas house, Clark said. Big gatherings — birthdays, barbecues, industry conferences and camping trips — bonded coworkers across shops and created lasting ties and chosen families for those whose family lives weren’t as bright, Clark said.
Cardenas was a force at the forefront of pushing the tattoo industry to be more inclusive, Clark said, which rubbed off on artists across the country. Landmark Tattoo holds meetings educating its staff about topics such as asking and using people’s proper pronouns and being more conscious of the language they use when speaking to people.
“So much of that is because of Alicia,” Clark said. “She taught me and so many others.”
Continuing the work
Julia Torres only has to look at her arm to be reminded of the significance of the tattooing community in her life and Cardenas’ magical touch.
Cardenas inked a memorial piece extending along Torres’ arm and upper back honoring Torres’ dead stepfather who designed stained glass. The piece — bursting with vibrant colors — managed to resemble stained glass with light bouncing through it, which Torres said is especially impressive on her Black skin.
“Alicia was one of the few artists in the state who really understood tattooing melanated skin,” Torres said.
The loss to the tattooing community is a wake-up call to Torres. She thought about all the communities the victims belonged to, fought for and loved — the artists, the poor, the Indigenous, the women, the queer — and felt called to pick up the fight where they left off.
“We who love them have an ongoing commitment to continue their work and the best thing people can do is research all the causes they were passionate about and find artists either in Denver or elsewhere who do Indigenous work and body modification and tattooing who need your help, uplifting, resources,” Torres said. “Alicia supported the homeless community, the queer community, so many. The best way we can honor her life is continuing that work, and that’s what I plan to do.”
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