Walking through the doors of Marion Street Tattoo is a bit like stepping inside the pages of an I-Spy book. From floor to ceiling, the shop is adorned with taxidermied animals, paintings, tattoo machines, trophies, flash tattoo sheets and more. While it may seem cluttered to their clients, to the handful of artists who work out of the shop, it feels like home.
Though the shop hasn’t called Marion Street its home for a few years – it’s now located at 2823 East Colfax Avenue – it’s been a favorite among Denver tattoo-enthusiasts for the last decade. Since the doors of the original shop opened nearly 10 years ago, Marion Street Tattoo has had a number of interesting clients walk through its doors, including members of noteworthy bands that have sold out venues across the Mile High City. However, it’s not just the guests that have walked through the doors of the shop, but the doors that have been opened for the artists who call the shop home that make Marion Street Tattoo memorable.
The story of Marion Street Tattoo begins with founder and current shop owner Ryan Willard. A transplant to Denver, Willard made his way to Colorado with hopes of pursuing his passion of mountain biking as an escape from the negative environment that surrounded him in his hometown of Detroit. With his sights set on Hawaii, he picked a place off of a map and found himself in Telluride. “Kind of as a blessing, I got stuck,” said Willard in an interview with 303 Magazine. “I came out towards fall time, ended up staying – and then years went by.”
Living out of his car and painting murals inside of some of the mansions in town, Willard was always drawn to the world of art. Still returning home to some of his old haunts, he was always surrounded by tattoo culture. “I was always really pushed towards tattooing, but I just felt like I didn’t have it,” said Willard. “It was a different lifestyle, that sort of thing. At that time, it was a little rougher kind of group than what’s going on now – much more fringe.”
Though it may have been intimidating, Willard didn’t shy away from the rough tattoo lifestyle. Following encouragement from industry leader Terry Welker, Willard found an apprenticeship at a biker shop on the western side of the state and began teaching himself how to put ink into the skin. Shortly after proving he had what it took to be a tattoo artist, he moved into a shop as a full-time tattooer, eventually moving to Denver where he would open Marion Street Tattoo with a fellow artist.
However, Willard’s co-founder quickly realized that the shop was not what he truly wanted for himself and allowed Willard to buy him out of the lease – making Willard the sole owner of the shop. Since then, Willard has found a new home on Colfax, pioneered the Friday the 13th tattoo trend that sweeps Denver, kicked off Marion Street’s first-ever chili cook-off and made a mark on countless tattoo enthusiasts throughout the state.
While the tattoos that come from Marion Street Tattoo speak for themselves, the platform that some of their owners stand on amplify the shop’s voice ten thousandfold. So, who exactly has Willard and the rest of the Marion Street Tattoo team left their mark on? The list is long and seemingly full of highlights. However, a few musical names stand out among them to include Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Shakey Graves and members of his crew, the members of The Menzingers, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, The Bouncing Souls, Mumford and Sons and many, many more.
Far from just tattooing talented musicians, Willard’s authenticity and positive outlook make him easy to befriend. Consequently, many of the noteworthy names that have sat under his tattoo machine have turned into repeat clients and more importantly friends. From partying with Dave Grohl in Nashville after a chance encounter with someone boasting a Foo Fighters’ connection to getting a Black Flag tattoo done on his leg by Bill Stevenson in a recording studio, Willard’s art has allowed him to experience aspects of the music industry that many music-lovers would kill for.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many amazing people, and I mean that truly, without being cheesy I really mean that,” said Willard. “I’ve learned so much from people and just being able to experience something super intimate and personal, as far as tattooing and especially when I get to tattoo them. It’s amazing, it truly is a gift.” Whether his clients boast fame and fortune or not, Willard counts every experience he has as a blessing – an attitude that keeps him genuinely humble.
“It literally blows my mind every day that people want to get art from me of any sort, whether it be this or tattooing. For it to snowball like this? It’s amazing. I can’t think about it because I get too overwhelmed.”
Though he has no guesses himself, it’s likely that Willard’s positive energy is a contributing factor to why so many individuals seek him out for tattoos. When reminiscing on some of the highlights of his tattoo career – which include helping Brian Kienlen of the Bouncing Souls open his own tattoo shop and being a part of Mumford and Sons’ Road to Red Rocks when Marion Street gave the band commemorative tattoos – Willard clearly finds himself overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what he’s been able to experience.
Though Marion Street Tattoo is often pigeon-holed as a shop that specializes in American Traditional tattooing, Willard and his colleagues will tattoo anything on anyone. “If I can stress anything, it’s always the fundamentals – and that’s in everything in life. Whether it’s relationships or diet or art or anything, you know. The fundamentals of tattooing all start with what is called traditional tattooing, which is basically just good tattooing,” said Willard “It’s not like it’s a tradition of shit, it’s a tradition of strong lines, strong color, tattoos that as we age and fall apart are going to be strong and hold up.”
“My advice across the board for everyone is just make sure your stuff is positive and happy and be healthy. We’re not here long, so let’s have a good time with it and be colorful and whatever that is. Respect for each other and respect for yourself first. So fuck yeah, get tattooed – if that’s what you want, and if not then cool, that’s awesome too. But tattoos are awesome.”
From living out of a van and painting houses to owning a popular tattoo shop that a team of talented tattoo artists calls home, Willard has lived a roller coaster of a life – but he wouldn’t have it any other way. A messenger of positivity, Willard’s authentically positive attitude makes him an enigma that you’ll want to be around whether you’re getting tattooed or not – and his incredible stories about the people he’s met throughout his career are just a bonus.
All photography by Kennedy Cottrell.