Friends say Alicia Cardenas challenged hatred in tattoo culture

Cardenas willingly faced the dangers of speaking face-to-face with hateful people because she believed she could change their perspectives.
6 min. read
Alicia Cardenas speaks to a reporter inside Sol Tribe Tattoo and Piercing on Broadway. April 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Sol Tribe owner and tattoo artist Alicia Cardenas felt threatened by white supremacists, though she rarely talked about it, said Denver poet LadySpeech Sankofa, a close friend, former roommate and co-parent with the artist.

Cardenas was shot and killed on Monday, Dec. 27. Her killer was a former tattoo shop owner who posted on social media and wrote novels under his pseudonym, Roman McClay. He glorified male- and white-supremacist views and chronicled a fictional killing spree that named some of the people he murdered or injured, including Cardenas. She was one of five people he killed in a metro-wide rampage, including Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado at Sol Tribe, Michael Swinyard at a condo near Cheesman Park, Danny Scofield at Lucky 13 Tattoo in Lakewood and Sarah Steck at the Hyatt House, before he was shot and killed at the Belmar shopping center by Lakewood police.

While his motive in the shooting is unknown, the values he wrote about were strikingly opposed to those Cardenas spoke about in describing her work as a tattooist, piercer, muralist and activist. He was a strident individualist; she championed collectivism. He was a male supremacist; she celebrated other women. He fantasized about murder sprees; she practiced healing. He preached hatred and vengeance and threatened others; she preached reconciliation, accountability and community.

Sankofa said Cardenas was an outspoken anti-racist activist who challenged the cultural appropriation that runs rampant in some parts of the body modification world.

The tattoo artist's own creative practice, which was rooted in Indigenous traditions, often criticized the dominant power structure, she said in an interview with me for Westword in January 2021, shortly after the alt-weekly named her a person to watch in 2021. She worked to create a safe and affirming shop for people of color, women and LGBTQ people for healing and ritual.

When she wasn't running her business or painting murals, she was working as a community activist, she said. She spent much of the summer of 2020, during protests against police murder of George Floyd, working as a medic, caring for people who had been hit by rubber bullets and flushing pepper spray out of protesters' eyes.

"I'm a nerd and do that s***," she said. "I had a profound experience with the protests and Black Lives Matter and how that is putting all people of color into a very emotional space. People of color were deeply hurt and in tears every day."

For Cardenas, the struggle against white supremacy and the patriarchy was a struggle against the ego, and people could be moved to change, she said. She supported the people tearing down statues of white supremacists and asked men and white people to do the same with whatever they propped up on a pedestal within themselves.

"Burn down your ego, bro," she would say. "Burn it down."

Longtime friend, playwright and activist Jeff Campbell recalled Cardenas as one of the few people who would take on racism in the tattoo scene.

She could do that, in part, because she grew up in the culture, he said. As a part of the body-art scene in her teens, she had come of age with many who were explicit about their racism and misogyny. As she grew older and formed her own political and cultural views, she didn't shy away from hard conversations with those men she called "tattoo bros," Campbell said. They were her people as much as anybody, and she confronted their hatred openly.

"She was from that world, so she was constantly taking in people like that and working with them and helping them and trying to do healing with them," Campbell said. "She still had an affinity to that community and was still trying to have an open door and have empathy with folks like that. So she was vulnerable to that stuff, because she was so accepting of folks like that."

Cardenas willingly faced the dangers of speaking face-to-face with hateful people because she believed she could change their perspectives. She quickly acknowledged her own flaws, Sankofa added, and gave people grace, even as she pushed them to shift their ideas about race, gender and power.

"People like us, we know how dangerous this work is," Sankofa said. "But we know if you have what it takes to do it, you do it. She was regularly in the crosshairs. And women, indigenous and black women and femmes, we are not protected. And there were so many people -- especially white people -- in that space, who did not take that seriously. And who did not understand what that is to challenge white supremacy. What it is to challenge it to people who have power inside of white supremacy."

While most of the headlines about Cardenas are about how beloved she was, Sankofa acknowledged the artist had enemies.

"You loved her or you hated her," Sankofa said. "And as much of this outpouring of love that y'all are seeing, there are people who hated her and her message, who took issue with the fact that she called them out on their cultural appropriation. [She] took issue with people who took these sacred aspects of our culture and wore them like costumes. And now that we know who did it, other people understand how dangerous this is. She knew. She knew. She knew. And she did it anyway."

Sankofa did not know the shooter but said his reputation as a "bad seed" was well established in the community.

He was known for hating women and his racism and temper. Many just didn't take him seriously as a viable threat, she said.

"This is one of those dudes who -- especially like for Black and brown people -- we f****** distance ourselves from him," she said. "When there's that level of hatred there, sometimes you can educate a white person. Then there's some times when Black and brown people have to be like, we can't even try because your level of hatred will get me killed or get me f***** up. So we're gonna back away. Those types of situations are where white people who consider themselves woke or any of that need to step in and step up. And no one did."

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