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