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Ink a Mile High: Tattoo Culture in Denver

Alicia Cardenas, owner of Sol Tribe at 56 Broadway.

More than one in five American adults -- 21 percent -- has at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 Harris poll.

Tim Mousseau got his first tattoo at age 17.

Mousseau calls his subsequent 19 works of body art "conversation starters."

 Creative integrity is mandatory at Cardenas' studio.

In Denver, tattoo culture has gone mainstream. There are more tattoos and tattoo parlors per capita than most other cities. But has the influx of ink been accepted with equally open arms by Denver's employers?
Striking a balance between individuality and assimilation is a lifelong exercise, ebbing and flowing, conscious and unconscious. Sure, times, trends and taboos change. But from a tribal rite of passage to a symbol of dangerous associations and punk, counterculture deviance, tattoos have finally made their way to the mainstream, and nowhere is this more apparent than from the various angles and avenues of Denver life.

According to a salary.com survey that questioned more than 2,500 Americans on tattoo culture in 2013, the population of the Mountain Region -- including Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and yes, Colorado -- is more inclined to take needle to skin than any other in the U.S.

"It's not a legal perspective -- it's just part of Colorado -- we attract a lot of very open-minded and free-thinking types here," says Gillian McKean Bidgood, shareholder with local law firm Polsinelli.

In the 1960s, approximately 500 professional tattoo artists operated in the U.S. By 1995, that number jumped to 10,000 and today it steadily continues to swell. "We have about 250 shops in the [Denver] metro area," says Adam Rose, owner of Fallen Owl Tattoo Studio on West Colfax Avenue. "To put that in perspective, last I heard San Francisco has roughly 45. Denver is one of the most saturated markets in the country."

More than one in five American adults -- 21 percent -- has at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 Harris poll. Another Pew Research Center study found the number was in fact closer to 40 percent among those between the ages of 18 and 39 -- a key demographic in the Mile High City.

Big business Creative integrity is mandatory at Cardenas' studio.

The inking industry brings in billions of dollars in annual revenue and creates jobs for aspiring artists and old pros alike.

"It's a great business, and Denver is definitely a hub for it," says Alicia Cardenas, owner of Sol Tribe at 56 Broadway, a custom tattoo and body-piercing studio. Beginning her body art career back in 1997, Cardenas opened a specialized shop called Twisted Sol, which has since evolved into her current operation.

With the uptick in artistic interest, she notes the industry has transformed. "We are custom," she says of her business. "There's nothing to choose from off the walls. But thanks to social media, it's become a free-for-all. Now, instead of getting a tattoo to separate yourself from the group, you're doing it to be like everybody else."

Creative integrity is mandatory at Cardenas' studio. When it comes time to add artists to the Sol tribe team, it's a matter of skill and cultural fit, which she and Fallen Owl owner Rose agree on. The two artist-owners also both attribute the high number of shops in the metro area to a lack of regulation in the industry.

"You'll find the rules and regulations are outdated," Cardenas says. "[The City of Denver] won't put money or energy into any rules or regulation updates to make the industry stronger and safer."

"Right now, anyone can open a shop," Rose says. "It's terrifying. There haven't been enough health hazards that have been recognized."

According to Kerra M. Jones, marketing and communications coordinator at the City and County of Denver's Department of Environmental Health, while Denver "works to ensure public health and safety . . . body art is just a small percentage of the public space." Her team is responsible for inspecting, referencing restaurants and child care facilities, among other categories.

"During the recession, almost every department across the city was told to do some belt-tightening," Jones says. As such, from 2010 to 2013, the annual routine inspections required for tattoo and piercing facilities were cut.

Though the mandatory check-ups were restored as of last year, Cardenas says until health regulations improve, Denver's tattoo industry is "stifled."

Her other area of concern stems from a lack of ethics, communication and education, further lending itself to stigmas attached to the art form and regret when it comes to human canvases.

"Many artists aren't having ethical conversations. You have to tell customers, just because you want it doesn't mean you should get it," Cardenas says. "You have to educate people that they shouldn't get tattoos on their throat and hands until they settle on a life career."

As Tim Mousseau, 25, puts it: "If you get a bad haircut, the stakes aren't that high." But, "A good tattoo artist is someone who cares about you and makes sure you're making the best decision for you."

Mousseau calls his subsequent 19 works of body art "conversation starters."Ink at the workplace

With all the ink, there is bound to be regret, and local tattoo-removal businesses such as Tattoo Undo and Veins Too and What Were You Inking are on the rise.

"I will never get my tattoos covered up or erased," Mousseau says. Initially inking his arm at age 17, Mousseau calls his subsequent 19 works of body art "conversation starters. I wanted them to be visible." He has experienced varied reactions to his graphically illustrated forearms and neck. With a professional speaking career in higher education that sends him from city to city, he planted himself in Denver within the last year and almost immediately found Th'Ink Tank Tattoo at 172 S. Broadway in Baker to support his creative desires.

"I believe in the arts and that tattooing is an art," Mousseau says. "It opens up an area to new mindsets, new temperaments, new talents. A good shop is a mixing pot for creativity in an area."

Mousseau shared that his first post-graduate job was with a trade association that produced leadership programming for college students. "I didn't tell my employer about my tattoos in the interview. Shortly after being hired and settling into the new position, I was asked about an ink smudge on my arm." Mousseau was asked to cover the tattoos and was able to do so for more than a year.

Though he has since pivoted professionally, "I get judged still very much within the corporate arena," Mousseau says. "One of my best friends works for one of the Big Four accounting firms, and when his co-workers met me for the first time, they said, 'Oh, I would never get that because it's not professional.'"

Tattoos undoubtedly have the potential to create conundrums for companies attempting to foster a particular culture of professionalism. As tattoos become more popular, will small-business owners and HR departments need to revisit, or visit for the first time, their dress codes and policies?

The aforementioned salary.com survey further revealed that 76 percent of respondents felt tattoos and piercings hurt applicants' likelihood of a job offer.

According to an HR administrator, there is no written policy on dress code or appearance at the locally headquartered energy firm she works at. Though she personally has tattoos and attempts to keep them concealed in the corporate arena, she doesn't hide them in the office, believing the influx of Millenials in the work place, and in Denver specifically, will create more accepting, inclusive work environments.

Similarly, Denver-based FullContact maintains a live-and-let-live policy when it comes to professional uniforms, or lack thereof. "I think, especially in startup culture, if you walk around our offices, you'll have everything from sweater vests and button downs to ripped jeans and ratty startup T-shirts," says Brad McCarty, director of corporate communications. "It's funny because people look at your typical director in my position and imagine a suit and tie guy. And then they see me . . . I have earrings, giant tattoos and a shaved head. Our goal is to have a company with someone who relates to every potential customer."

Yes, Denver is much more relaxed than many states, Polsinelli's McKean Bidgood agrees. "I don't think a lot of employers think about tattoos in their work places until there's an issue presented. There's a debate every employer goes through before adopting a policy. They ask: Who are we serving, do we have a business need for this? That is balanced against: Who are the people who have the skills we want to hire? You couldn't start a hair salon and expect that you won't have anyone with any ink or wild hairstyles."

Though tattoo artists and tattooed bodies alike come with stigmas attached, "I've tattooed criminals, cops and everyone in between," says Rose. "People are people."

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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