Denver arts community mourns Sol Tribe owner and muralist Alicia Cardenas and others killed in mass shooting

“Her murals are all over the city. Her murals are all over our bodies.”
8 min. read
Alicia Cardenas speaks to a reporter inside Sol Tribe Tattoo and Piercing on Broadway. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When National Poetry Series champion Dominique Christina saw the Denver Police Department tweeting about a mass shooting that started at 1st and Broadway Monday night, she thought about calling one of her best friends, tattoo artist and muralist Alicia Cardenas. Cardenas's shop, Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing, was on the block, and she would surely know what had happened.

"Then I thought, she's not usually there on Monday, so that's fine," Christina recalled thinking. "Also, I'm not going to text her and ask her about it right now, because I don't want her to cuss me out about putting that energy out there. So I'm just gonna wait, and I'll call her tomorrow, and I'll ask her what she heard."

Of course her friend would be OK, Christina remembered thinking. She believed Cardenas was impervious. Even supernatural.

But when Christina woke up Tuesday morning, she learned that Cardenas had been murdered at the tattoo and piercing studio around 5 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 27.

"I'm just really struggling with how she exited," Christina said. "I mean, she entered every room on her own terms. I'm really struggling with how she left. I'm just really struggling with it."

Christina's friend and Sol Tribe employee Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado had also been murdered. Gunn-Maldonado's husband, Jimmy Maldonado, had been shot and is hospitalized, according to a GoFundMe organized by a family friend.

Christina described all three as "beautiful human beings; beautiful, intentional artists; people who were prolific at creating family in community and strengthening their community and emphasizing the importance of ritual and tradition and how necessary art is in a world that can feel really ugly. How important it is to inject beauty when and where you can. All of them operate from that ethos. That's who Jimmy Maldonado is. That's who his wife was. That's who Alicia was."

On Monday night,  Michael Swinyard was killed by the same shooter near Cheesman Park, according to the Denver Police Department. Later, in Lakewood, the suspect killed Danny Scofield, aka Dano Blair, at Lucky 13 Tattoo & Piercing, and Sarah Steck at the Hyatt House Hotel in Belmar.

The shooter, Lyndon James McLeod, appeared to have known the victims, police said. He was shot and killed by police.

Grief rippled through Denver's cultural scene Tuesday as friends of the victims learned about their deaths.

"Rest easy brother Dano Blair I will always love you," wrote Joey Black of Lucky 13 on social media. "You were my Brother an awesome human being, a great Father, Son and Brother. My deepest heartfelt sympathy and condolences to his daughter, his family and friends. Please keep them in your prayers. My heart goes out to Alisha Cardenas and all at sol tribe and everyone who lost their lives and loved ones who were senselessly murdered for no f****** reason. My prayers are with you all."

Cardenas's friend, playwright, rapper and activist Jeff Campbell lamented her loss and worried about her child.

"We were really close," he said. "And I absolutely loved her."

He described her as a matriarch of the arts community.

"She was someone who taught and mentored so many artists in this town and a lover of art and a supporter of people living in their creative self-expression," Campbell said. "She was a powerful healer and was a person you can rely on to hold you accountable. Definitely, you know, lovingly tell the truth when things were not in alignment. She was as authentic as it can be."

The Sol Tribe victims' friend Erika Righter, who owns the gift shop Hope Tank, has set up a memorial outside her store where people can share their thoughts and memories with the victims' families.

"I don't even know how to tell you how I'm feeling, bro," said Cardenas's friend Devin Nyshawn Arnold, who makes music under the name DNA Picasso. "There's not even a word to describe it at all."

Cultural groups across Denver took to social media to express their sorrow.

"We don't have words for the pain we feel. Our prayers are with her family," posted the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. "The beauty that these two women placed in the world will shine always."

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Alicia Cárdenas and condemn the violent events that led to her death last night," wrote Museo de las Americas. "The whole Denver art community mourns her passing today."

The South Broadway rock club the hi-dive wrote: "Our hearts have broken for our neighbors down at Sol Tribe tattoo, and for all the victims of last night's senseless tragedy. We love you and we support you. If anyone needs to talk about it we are here for you."

Mutiny Information Cafe and other businesses quietly closed to mourn.

"We're hurting badly," Sol Tribe posted. "We feel your love through our sadness. Please be patient with us as we navigate."

Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre sits under the kiosko at La Raza (Columbus) Park in north Denver on Aug. 15, 2019. (Xandra McMahon/CPR News)

Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre, who has collaborated with Cardenas for several years, spent Tuesday morning scrolling through her Facebook page, reading tributes from friends.

"It's incredible to see the legacy that she has and is leaving behind," LeFebre said. "And you get to see how one person impacted a community. And you don't get that if you're not sincere with your work and who you are and how you show up."

He also connected with a group of friends including Cardenas's friend, poet LadySpeech, on Tuesday morning.

"LadySpeech told us to do something that we loved today, because that's what Alicia would have wanted us to do," LeFebre said. "And I love to write. As poet laureate, not only am I trying to frame for us our existence in these very tangible ways, but sometimes the work calls us to try to make sense of this for all of us together, and that's what I try to do."

He dedicated his poem to "Alicia Cardenas and our entire community."

As the gun smoke rises
and forms a question mark in the
frigid air,
go and collect the flowers.
Prepare the fire for the medicine,
ready the needle for blood ritual.

Allow the cries to form a chorus;
be angry and lead with love.
Sing the sacred songs,
dance until the drum says otherwise,
paint until your fingers blister.
Do not try and make sense of the
senseless, instead, travel through
memory as a portal to prayer.
How much more do you want from
us, world?
How much more do you think we have
to give?

The last time LeFebre sat with Cardenas, the two were addressing tensions between them.

"I think that you can find out who people are really in those times of conflict and when things aren't easy," he said. "We left that conversation in each other's arms, embracing, and we had squashed the beef that we needed to. But she always moved in that way -- as a priestess. She moved in medicine, you know, and she brought the medicine out."

Christina had known Cardenas for twenty years. Cardenas used piercing and later tattooing as a ritualistic, healing practice that taught her friend about her body and helped her address trauma.

"She was always turning bruises into something beautiful," Christina said. "That's a heavy thing for anybody to lose -- for any community to lose. A person who uses their magic to turn your bruises into something beautiful, it's somebody you will miss if they go, when they go."

From the beginning of her career, in the '90s, Cardenas integrated her Indigenous and Mexican heritages into her piercings -- creative lineages she later incorporated into her work as a tattooist, activist and muralist.

"The evolution of Alicia as a person is also the evolution of Alicia as an artist," Christina said. "She just became more ferocious and more awake, and more ancestral over the years, as she developed as an artist, an activist and a spiritual healer."

And her impact has spread far and wide.

"There's going to be so many different communities that all feel this intensely," Christina said. "She was not one dimensional in any way, shape or form. Her murals are all over the city. Her murals are all over our bodies."

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