Four years ago, Denver tattooist AJ McGuire hit a turning point in his career. After several hours-long sessions breaking up line work, color and touch-ups, he had just finished tattooing a half-sleeve on a client. It was a beautiful tribute to Colorado with white-capped mountains, a glowing orange sunset and a deep blue river complete with a jumping trout.
“I don’t know what it was, but it kind of made me feel like, ‘Okay, I can do this. This is what I want to do,’” McGuire said. “That was the one tattoo that gave me the confidence to realize I’m there. I figured out how to draw things in a way that translates well in the tattoos but are still authentic to my style of art. Right after that, the trout stuff really started to blow up.”
McGuire is one of only a handful of tattooists who specialize in fly fishing body adornments. For the last several years, he’s honed his craft working out of his shop on Santa Fe and 8th called Dead Drift Tattoo—which itself is a fly fishing reference to letting the river current control the movement of a fly. Anglers and admirers alike travel from across the country, even the world, to get tattooed by him. By this point, one doesn’t have to look far within the fly fishing community in Denver to spot one of McGuire’s pieces.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m majorly popular, but within a specific group of people I’m pretty well known,” McGuire said. “Denver’s such a big tattoo scene that it’s hard to stand out with so many other good artists around. It seems like no matter what you do, you just can’t get a leg up. But that’s what it took for me, finding that niche.”
That niche was born from fusing a childhood interest in art and a hobby-turned-obsession. McGuire said he’s been drawing for as long as he remembers, and was a “total art nerd” in school. He received a degree in drawing and printmaking back in his home state of New York. But none of the traditional pathways for art majors, like teaching or illustrating, particularly interested him. So he packed up his bags, moved to Colorado, and picked up a fly rod and a tattoo machine. Now, any day of the week, when McGuire isn’t in the shop or at home with his wife Robbi and their daughter Josie, he’s out on the water.
“Honestly, I combined the two pretty fast,” McGuire said. “Because the fish just have such beautiful patterns, they’re like a little work of art in and of themselves. So it was kind of a natural progression. I think there’s a lot of similarities between fly fishing and tattooing. They’re both super intricate things, they both take a lot of skill, they both take a lot of fine-tuning practice and trying to better yourself. You’re gonna have bad days in both where instead of being upset, you have to just learn from it and try to do better next time. There are a variety of factors out of your control.”
McGuire announced on Instagram earlier this year that he would be opening his books to take clients on a “Cast and Blast,” which involves two back-to-back days of fishing and tattooing. The artist drew inspiration from his former art professor, an Umpqua-sponsored fly fishing guide in Western New York, who would take clients out on the river and do an oil painting of their best catch.
McGuire’s offer works similarly, with a tattoo in lieu of a painting. However, McGuire is not a registered guide and therefore doesn’t charge for taking clients out for the day of fishing. Because of his extensive knowledge of both excellent fishing spots and what flies work best for them, McGuire said he feels confident in putting his tattoo clients onto fish.
“I fish so much, so I feel like I know what spots are going to be productive,” McGuire said. “I also feel like for flies, I’m pretty dialed in on what to use. I’m definitely not a guide but I feel like it could be a job that I would have if I wasn’t a tattoo artist.”
Katie Treloar, a Castle Rock resident, and one of McGuire’s first Cast and Blast clients along with her husband Chris, said fishing with the tattooist was “an amazing experience.” She said it was challenging because it was her first time fishing a high-alpine lake—among McGuire’s favorite spots—and especially windy. Treloar joked that there was a moment she was worried she might have to get a tattoo of the sandwich she ate for lunch that day instead of a trout. But in the last hour of their outing, she caught a huge cutthroat.
“AJ’s passion and love for fly fishing is contagious,” Treloar said. “Guided trips tend to be more of a teacher and student relationship whereas fishing with AJ was like fishing with a long-time friend. I think this experience is nothing short of brilliant. It’s unique and fun and has left my husband and me with a lifelong reminder of the special day that we got to spend on the water with AJ.”
Another Cast and Blast client from Evergreen, Steven Anderson, was getting a tattoo of his big cutthroat from the day before. He’s been fishing “seriously” for the last five years and this is his second fish tattoo from McGuire.
“[The fish tattoos] just represent my passion for fly fishing,” Anderson said. “I just love the aesthetic of fish, they’re absolutely beautiful.”
Both Anderson and Treloar said they feel fortunate to have been able to participate in the Cast and Blast, as spots filled up quickly—something that happens often these days as McGuire’s popularity rises. He said he feels his niche would be successful wherever he lived because fly fishing is a growing sport, but something about it feels uniquely Colorado. Regardless, he said he feels lucky he gets to merge two of his passions when he comes to work every day.
“I get to make art every day, talk about fishing every day and work with a bunch of people I really like,” McGuire said. “It’s a great job. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”