A Home for Denver’s Queer Pack
Putting energy into a person with broken skin—that’s how Ryane Urie of The Wolf Den Custom Tattoo Studio & Gallery describes their connection to their art. As owner of the custom tattoo shop in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, they understand the intimate connection permanent body art has between artist and consumer, and they honor that exchange with every single piece of work they place on someone’s body.
Urie created something special when they opened The Wolf Den Custom Tattoo Studio & Gallery, a space which is extraordinarily unique to the Denver tattoo scene. Not only is it a space of creativity, authenticity, and collaboration, it is a place specifically designed to make queer folks feel welcome in a setting which can often feel anything other than.
“It was built on the foundation of always wanting something a little better,” Urie explained. They described the moment that sparked this need for change, a situation a few years ago where they were tattooing a client, and some of the other artists in the shop were throwing around blatantly bigoted slurs in jest. Feeling uncomfortable themselves, and feeling the energy in their client shifting to a rigid discomfort, Urie had a talk with the shop owner.
Unfortunately, the shop owner dismissed their concerns and refused to address the other artists. Fortunately, that set Urie on the road of creating a conscious and welcoming shop, disrupting the normalized, homophobic, and racist culture that can be found in the tattoo community, even right here in Denver.
Fast forward to three years later, and Urie is now the owner of the “hidden in plain sight” shop on Larimer Street. With a speakeasy vibe, energy is everything to Urie. The boutique tattoo studio has an intentionally designed floor plan which gives each artist their own, individual room. This ensures they are able to work uninterrupted and that they can control the energy, making sure everyone feels safe.
The space also serves as an art gallery, an event space, and a general safe space for queer folks. With an appointment-only model, everyone in the shop can filter who comes in and out of the doors, something which is extremely important in keeping the space safe for all gender identities and sexual orientations.
An unintentional trailblazer, Urie explained that there were only two other female-owned shops in Denver at the time The Wolf Den Custom Tattoo Studio & Gallery opened its doors, and that was a generous estimation.
“It was a new thing, ‘The girls are coming into town.’ But when they realized that it was queer, I think they didn’t even know where to put that, like ‘Oh sh*t, there’s this whole other level … what do we do with navigating that?’” Urie said.
Now, there are four resident artists who all either identify themselves as queer, nonbinary, and/or female. Urie said that the pack at Wolf Den found each other, all folks on a similar mission to find a respectful place to hustle out some incredible body artwork.
While The Wolf Den is creating community through their artists and patrons, they have not experienced the same degree of warmth from their peers within the tattoo realm.
“The culture is pretty savage, to be honest. It’s very cutthroat,” Urie said.
With a simple Google search, it’s easy to see why the competition is so fierce. Hundreds of shops in the Denver Metro Area pop up within a 10-mile radius of one another, and with so many thirsty artists, spaces become less welcoming and more discriminatory.
“It’s insanely oversaturated and insanely territorial, as the old dogs that have been in this forever are kind of like, ‘Who the f*ck are you? You think you can have this light, fluffy, queer little pillow? That’s not our industry,’” Urie said.
They went on, “I’ve definitely had some pretty rough comments and emails from non-welcoming studios. And it’s just kind of blowing my mind. There’s more than enough [business] for everyone, and we’re here to work together and not tear each other down. It’s been a little disappointing within the tattoo world.”
Not only are they queer themself, Urie strives to create a safe space for queer folks and allies. They know they have established a special experience for their clients and can be of service to those who truly need these spaces.
“I think it’s probably been the most profound and beautiful way to have my finger on the pulse of the community. I get to constantly meet people I don’t think I normally would. They get to come in here and share their stories, and I feel very lucky that I get to sit with the knowledge of what’s going on.” Urie said.
Additionally, Urie knows a lot of the significance of the space is providing a safe ear to listen to those stories. Not only does this create a counter-culture here in town, it continues to spread to places that are far less accepting of queer stories than the Mile High City.
“I think it snowballed into a snow castle, and I couldn’t be more grateful. We’ll have people travel here because, in the Midwest, this is unheard of. I had someone come from Kansas last week, and I just wanted to hug them. It’s welcoming people that may not have anything near them that feels safe,” Urie said.
When I said to Urie that this entire experience – The Wolf Den embodies sounded remarkably special, their response was, “I think that’s what you need to feel when someone is going to put something on you for the rest of your life.”
Feeling an immense amount of responsibility to try to set the correct standard, The Wolf Den is creating something beautiful, and Urie hopes the cultural shift will catch fire and spread.
“That would be the ultimate goal, showing people and empowering people that it’s not always the easiest road, but you can do it. You can trailblaze,” they said.
Despite the criticism that Urie and their team at The Wolf Den receive, they are a pack of artists who consistenly rise to meet and rise above the challenges they face. Knowing they have an entire community to serve that is greater than the opinion of their critics, the responsibility weighs heavily on Urie. However, they know that in and with community, we can exceed even our own expectations.
“The whole theme of this is that we work better together. It seems like all the other tattoo shops are all fighting for scraps, but if they all worked together, they would get a lot further. And so, I wanted to make sure we all took care of each other,” Urie emphasized.
“One of the things I love about wolf packs are that the alphas can be female. It’s one of the few animal groupings where that’s interchangeable. And so, I wanted to be like, ‘Here we are, and we can be whatever we want to be.’”
Doing just that, they received a 2019 Best in City nomination and have become a staple for LGBTQ folks and allies when it comes to community art spaces. However, Urie is still surprised to see themself as a small business owner.
“Honestly, I just wanted to show up and paint, listen to my music, meet people, and then go home, but I feel like no one else was doing it,” Urie explained. “No one else had enough guts to kind of take some threats, and I was like, ‘F*ck it. I just don’t want to stand for this anymore, and I gotta be the change.’”