Tattoo shops in the United States—which are largely run by straight, white men—have a reputation for upholding intimidating, macho ambiences. Since 2020, however, the Denver area has seen a new wave of tattoo shops that go beyond ink and instead focus on how they impact clients and the community around them.

“We’ve had multiple experiences where a trans client will come in, and they’ll feel very comfortable to where, if they are getting a chest piece or they’re getting scars covered up, they feel OK taking their shirt off,” says Sandra Lin, co-owner of Disruptive Ink in Lakewood. She feels that permanently marking your skin is an inherently intimate experience that can be an especially sensitive event for people who have complicated relationships with their bodies. “We joke because we call it ink therapy,” she says. “There’s a lot of tears that happen in our shop.”

Lin and other queer trailblazers in the Denver area are paving the way for a more inclusive and comfortable tattooing experience, regardless of clients’ abilities or identities. Welcome to the new wave of Denver tattoo shops delivering judgment-free settings.

woman tattooing an ornate shape on a client's shin
Disruptive Ink owner Sandra Lin tattoos her client, Ashley Greene. Photo by Sarah Banks

Disruptive Ink

Lin’s shop is designed with accessibility in mind. Since opening in September 2020, Disruptive Ink’s entire staff has received formal training on effective communication with the deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind communities. The shop goes even further by providing American Sign Language interpreters at no charge, so no one misses out on the friendly shop banter. “It was like night and day,” says Ashley Greene, one of the shop’s deaf patrons. As a testament to the importance (and rarity) of accessibility in the tattoo world, Greene flew 700 miles from her home in Texas to be inked by Lin.

The cozy space has impressive spatial orientation, suitable for deaf people who are visually inclined. Most notably, a large, central-facing mirror that allows clients to have even greater awareness of their surroundings and their tattoo artist at work.

Two Thunders Tattoo

Located in North Capitol Hill, Two Thunders Tattoo is a tribute to the two owners’ Native American heritages. As an Indigenous- and queer-owned shop, Two Thunders draws its clientele from a diverse range of backgrounds, many of whom trek to this spot to be tatted by Cante Eagle Horse and Tanner Minock.

Two Thunders, which opened in November 2020, runs as a by-appointment-only business to ensure privacy and proper attention is given to each client. As a tattoo artist with nearly a decade of experience, Minock knows firsthand what it’s like to feel unwelcome in a tattoo space, which is why a pillar of his shop is inclusivity and what he calls “homey vibes.”

“As a queer person, and as a biracial person, going into a tattoo shop that’s a pretty hyper-masculine environment [has] always been a little bit threatening,” Minock says.

Prior to opening Two Thunders, when he worked at a walk-in tattoo shop in downtown Denver, Minock recalls certain clients who would come in and show visible discomfort with his identity as a queer artist. “In general, there is a good amount of homophobia and racism within the tattoo community, so that’s something we’re trying to bring attention to,” he says. “We get a lot of recognition for that from our clients. Similar to me, a lot of people have had unfavorable experiences at other tattoo shops.”

Nest Art Collective

Founder Lora Bird built Nest Art Collective upon similar pillars of inclusivity, adding that the entire eight-person staff belongs to the LGBTQ+ community. “There’s so many voices that need to be introduced into this industry to change the way that it is,” Bird says. She hopes she can help with that introduction with her Wheat Ridge tattoo shop, which opened this July.

Rather than occupying a large and open space like a beauty salon, each Nest artist takes clients to private rooms adorned with their own personal touches. Bird specializes in trauma-informed tattooing, which could involve providing a squeeze ball to clients, taking multiple breaks throughout a session, or offering a shoulder to cry on. Whether it’s inking scars from past sexual abuse or commemorating a sobriety milestone, Bird lets clients know they can take a break from the pain of the needle at any time.

Although Nest opened only five months ago, Bird’s bookings are waitlisted. “You can be who you want to be at this shop,” says Nest patron Rosy Cobb. She’s been recommending Nest to her transgender friends because she knows their chosen pronouns will be respected. No deadnaming here. “It’s promoting a great, new kind of space and a new, hopefully broader idea that other shops will start to follow.”