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‘A goddess among mortals’: Alicia Cardenas changed the face of modern body modification

// A print of Aloria Weaver’s oil portrait of Alicia Cardenas titled “Integrity, Piercing the Veil of Obscuration.” Photo by Madison Lauterbach | mlauterbach@msmayhem.com

This story was reported with help from Alexandra Cummings

In the body modification community, there are names that everyone knows: Fakir Musafar, Shannon Larratt, Howie Luna Cobra.

Also on that list, filled with mostly white men who have dominated the industry for decades, is Denver body modification artist and owner of Sol Tribe, Alicia Cardenas. As an Indigenous woman, Cardenas brought the rituals of Meso-American cultures into her body modification practices and empowered others to do the same. 

“I just needed someone like Alicia to give me permission to really look at it from that perspective and be like, ‘I need to take ownership of this,’” said Luz de Luna Duran, owner of Luna Body Piercing Velton in Berlin, Germany. “These practices that we do, they are medicine. They are our magic. [Body modification] is how we enact the magic of our bodies out in the world. It was really inspiring to see another woman of color on these stages, taking those leadership positions.”

For someone who was so dedicated to uplifting marginalized voices within the tattooing and piercing industry, it is an especially cruel twist of fate that a white supremacist should be the one to take her out of this world. Cardenas and jewelry manager Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado were fatally shot inside the shop on Dec. 27, 2021, during a shooting rampage that left five dead. Gunn-Maldonado’s husband, Jimmy, survived after being shot in the chest. He has since been released from the hospital. 

Cardenas’ death was a significant loss not just for Denver: It was made clear by the outpouring of thousands of social media posts mourning her passing that she touched lives across the world. 

“[The loss] is huge, it’s profound,” said Lani Soleil, owner of La Línea Body Art in Las Vegas. “She was a goddess among mortals.”

Her influence stretched far beyond the tight-knit community of body modification into several creative spheres. Cardenas joined the 57-member Denver performance group Itchy-O in 2014 as a crash cymbal player. The artist also lept from skin canvases to walls, with murals across Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Her pride in being “Chicanative” showed in her practice of traditional Aztec dancing. Cardenas was also an activist for social equity and a staunch supporter of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Cardenas’ work as an activist made Sol Tribe a welcoming and safe place for marginalized people, both as employees and customers. She encouraged her fellow artists to eradicate the prejudice so often seen in the piercing and tattoo community and denied service to those who sought permanent marks of hate symbols. 

Soleil recalled the last time she did a guest spot at the shop in September 2020, when Cardenas received an email from a person wanting a Nordic symbol that was known to be used by white supremacists. Instead of immediately declining, the Sol Tribe owner wanted this person to look her in the eye as a woman of color and explain what this symbol meant to them. 

“She was so good at having hard conversations; she welcomed them,” Soleil said. “Especially with how it is that she went—That really, really, really bothered me. She was such a strong person that she had no problem telling a white supremacist to fuck off to their face.”

The other contributions she made to the body modification industry are immeasurable. 

Thousands of people have been tattooed, pierced, scarred, branded, suspended or otherwise physically altered by Cardenas. And hundreds more have been impacted by the work she did to make piercing as a profession more accessible. Cardenas entered the industry in 1994 at the age of 16, as an apprentice at Bound by Design on Colfax, and began piercing professionally a year later. In 1997, she opened her first shop, Twisted Sol, a monumental accomplishment not just for a 19-year-old, but a woman of color. Luis Garcia, vice president of the board of directors for the Association of Professional Piercers, or the APP, said her ability to do so was an indication of what a strong force she was. 

“Anyone who knows about the piercing field knows it’s been a male-dominated industry forever,” Garcia said. “She was a strong person to be able to handle what was thrown at her because of who she was and what she was trying to do.”

And her achievements only grew from there. Cardenas served her first term on the board of the APP as international liaison from 2002-2005. Immediately after that, she served as board president until 2008, the same year she began her tattooing career. During this time, piercing education and licensing in Latin America was substandard. Cardenas’ passion for the Latin American community drove her to bring the first APP conference to Mexico. This became the starting point of the Latin America Body Piercing Association, which was officially established in 2013. 

“She enabled people to start this organization and run it so it wouldn’t fall through the cracks,” Garcia said. “The fact that it’s still running is proof of the energy she put into it. It’s been running for [almost] 10 years, and she planted that seed and had the food to ensure it grew properly.”

In part due to her focus on uplifting Latina piercers and her efforts to re-Indigenize body modification practices, Cardenas was completely overlooked by American piercers, often white women, Garcia said. But those efforts meant the world to piercers like Soleil and Duran, who saw her as a mentor, a spiritual guide and a sister. 

“I think what she was trying to instill in other women of color was that she was going to advocate for us because no one had done it for her when she needed it,” Soleil said. “She literally created the space. If you were a woman of color, she almost would demand you to be present and introduce you to people. It was her mission to have people that looked like us represent the industry.”

When Soleil opened her shop, Cardenas sent her all the legal and procedural information that Sol Tribe abided by. Each document was necessary and intentional from a safety aspect, but Soleil said she saw how all those little things fit together to make Cardenas’ shop what it is.

“It was all Alicia. She created this environment that really did not exist in the piercing community here in the states,” Soleil said. “She was right; it’s necessary for us to do this work and do it intentionally.” 

Cardenas showed the industry what tattoo and piercing shops could look like if they broke the white boys’ club mold that had been set. It was a shop where not only employees were treated like family, but every person who stepped foot into the studio was as well. Duran said Cardenas inspired a generation of brown girls to step up and stake a claim in the industry. She was a pivotal character who showed them that they had a right to be there. 

“I think that Alicia is very important to any person who is not a white boy in this industry,” Duran said. “To just see the possibility that you don’t have to be a white boy to really do your thing and to be accepted and to be loved.”

As Cardenas transitions from mentor to industry ancestor, the legacy of what she leaves behind is that of an icon. But she didn’t care about acknowledgment or accolades, according to Garcia. She just would have wanted people to continue the work she started.

“She never wanted anything for the sake of her name or recognition,” Garcia said. “She wanted people to educate for the sake of educating, volunteer for the sake of volunteering, fight injustices for the sake of fighting injustices—for the sake of the people who are being stepped on and overlooked.”

 

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