Candice Bradley sits on a green velvet camelback couch sporting a few flawlessly placed piercings—a living museum of fine art is inked on her body like paintings at an exhibit whose colors and composition can hold your gaze for hours. Two kittens take turns jumping up to nuzzle her, amused with her head full of gloriously dark hair. Her demeanor and smile bespeak a quiet confidence and self-acceptance, but that belief in herself was hard-won.
Born in the small community of Torrington, Wyo., where she grew up until the age of nine, Candice recounts that life was hard, especially since her father was physically abusive. As she has moved forward in her life, she considers that her father’s malevolence was part of the path that made her the stronger person she is today.
In Crested Butte she feels comfortable as a businesswoman, parent and partner. As owner of the tattoo parlor the Calico Queen, the artwork of Candice can be spotted wandering the valley on the skin of her customers.
Candice’s mother remarried and moved Candice and her two brothers to Laramie. Middle and high school were terrifying as Candice emerged: “I had come out as a lesbian.”
She had told some of her friends but she was still struggling with her identity, “Growing up in Wyoming, the worst thing you could be called in middle school was a fag and so that’s the last thing I wanted to be.” Life was complicated and oftentimes hurtful, Candice attempted suicide at the age of 14. “I felt completely broken and I felt I had let down everybody in my life.” At 15, she was sent to a Christian home for children and it was while she was there that she bravely came out to her mother, who turned and ran out of the room in tears, and then didn’t speak to Candice for months afterwards.
Rejection is never easy and it’s exceptionally difficult when it comes in the form of maternal abandonment. “I was a delinquent and using drugs, I had a job by the time I was 14 and I had to take care of myself.” She graduated from high school early, in 1998, because, she says, “They made us go to school all year.”
After graduation, Candice turned to her music more professionally. “I was playing bass and dabbling in drums in a queer punk band in Laramie. In October 1998, the terrible murder of Mathew Sheppard, who was left to die tied to a fence on the prairie, happened. I had heard the news and ran over to my drummer’s house. I was crying, they’re going to kill us. I was terrified even more after I saw a VHS tape someone took of our band playing at a show and when the camera pans the audience, one of Sheppard’s murderers is standing in the audience.”
She left Wyoming a couple of months later, moving to Colorado Springs. “It was a bigger city and my drummer had a place for us to live and jobs. For being one of the most conservative places in Colorado, the underbelly and underground of Colorado Springs was magnificent. You have these conservative churches everywhere but you have a huge underground music and gay scene. I slept most days and worked nights, and I’d go out after work and see people I had only dreamt of seeing, like club kids, ravers, leather daddies, drag queens and more punk rockers. It was amazing, it was like walking into total acceptance and you could be whoever you wanted to be.”
She was suddenly thrust into this colorful, wonderful world, and she recalls the exhilaration. “I felt like a baby, like I’d just been born. I felt like Princess Jasmine riding around with Aladdin on a magic carpet.”
In 2000, her band broke up but Candice and her friends decided to create an underground music venue. Pooling their money for $700 a month rent, they found the perfect warehouse under the Colorado Boulevard bridge. “We started booking and doing shows nightly. It went really well for maybe a year,” but then, during a punk show, one of the customers became unmanageable, exhibiting violent and confrontational behavior in the mosh pit, pushing a group of girls.
When the management approached him to talk, he became even more aggressive and punched Candice. Both the police and fire department arrived on the scene and consequently closed down the club. Candice felt, “We were an interesting group of people and they didn’t want us open. And it’s hard to manage 200 punk rock kids.”
Candice took up with another local punk band, The Misplaced, who just happened to need a bass player. “They were one of the most active bands I had been with, playing three times a week on the Front Range from Ft. Collins to Colorado Springs for two years. I had spent ten years of my life working at a mom and pop pizza place in the Springs and I would get really bored working in pizza. I was still going to shows a lot and had started some projects with other musicians but it was pretty uneventful. Partying took the majority of my time. My priorities were definitely off. I wasn’t where I needed to be. I was trying to figure out how to live my life, how to navigate it without losing myself.” And then her life slammed into a wall.
In 2005, she woke up in the hospital after a five-day induced coma, with her family surrounding her. Congestive heart failure wasn’t normal for a 24-year-old girl but her drug abuse had taken its toll. She had flat-lined twice. “They told my girlfriend to call my family because I wasn’t going to make it through the night.” She was in the hospital for two weeks. “It was painful. The doctors told me I was never going to run or play music again without sitting down. I went back to work but I felt old. I was going to cardiac rehab with people in their seventies. I needed to feel that I was able to do things and take care of myself. I went back to work at my pizza job, but I’d get winded just walking, so I had to take a lot a breaks.”
For a short time, Candice went to train conductor school at Union Pacific. Trains had been part of her life from childhood as her parents were gandy dancers, railroad workers who pound the stakes into the tracks. She learned how to put a train together and she explains, “You can’t put a flammable car next to chemical waste or other flammable cars. More than that, trains transport nuclear waste across the country and if you hop trains, as hobos did back in the day, they can now charge you as terrorist, but people still hop trains all the time. I love trains. They’ve just always been in my life.”
Conductor school didn’t work out for Candice though, because she couldn’t pass the physical due to her congestive heart failure.
Candice was tragically unhappy and she says of the darkness that ensued, “There was nothing I could do to make myself happy. I think when you use drugs, you’re trying to fill a hole inside yourself. What drugs do is core out a larger hole and sometimes you’re never able to fill that hole with anything. As an abused kid, I felt every hit by my father and I think that those same hits, those same vibrations, just echo in your soul. I needed to dim that with drugs because instead of it resonating in me throughout my whole existence, drugs made it stop, made it quiet.”
And she fell into that abyss again. In and out of a couple of deeply meaningful relationships, and a marriage, Candice finally began to see the damage of her drug abuse. “I realized that drugs were just destroying everything I loved. They were making me feel better and everyone around me feel worse. In 2008, I quit using drugs, I was completely devastated,” she says of the loss of those relationships.
After a brief stint back in Wyoming, she moved back Colorado Springs in 2009. “I was so focused on building a new life. I wanted to go back to school to find a trade job, something that I could do anywhere on the planet. I decided to train in welding.”
She had met Tiffany and they had a civil union ceremony in 2011 because same sex marriages weren’t legal at the time. Candice enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College for welding technology, earning an associate of applied science degree in welding in 2011. “I tried to look for welding jobs but starting pay was $12 an hour. I was making more money delivering pizza. After running into a friend tattoo artist, who was looking for help at his shop, I became his apprentice.” She worked at the shop for three years, learning the art.
After she and Tiffany separated in 2013, Candice discovered Crested Butte. “I drove up here in the night, woke up in the morning and felt like I was in a different country. The scenery was something that I wasn’t used to at all, it was magical.” Commercial spaces in Colorado Springs were hard to find, and the city was already saturated with tattoo shops. When people in Crested Butte began asking her for tattoos, she took it as a sign and opened Calico Queen Tattoo in 2014. She met Malia Jones, who was one of her clients, and the two developed a friendship. When Malia separated from her husband, the women discovered a passionate and common magnetism. “It’s kind of been a whirlwind. We’re so in love with each other, our relationship is remarkable.” They married in 2016, focused on building a home of tolerance and understanding for their three children, Sahar, Cyrene, and their son, Jesse, the children from Malia’s marriage.
Candice’s difficult path has led her to stability and Crested Butte. “I think that we all travel these voyages and I think we should be proud of them at the end of the day because they take us to where we are today. I feel we should spend more time accepting people for who they are instead of trying to find a scientific reason for why they are.”
She is appreciative of her community. “I feel that Crested Butte is accepting of gays. I think it’s hard to date in this town in general, straight or gay. Unless they’ve been imported, everyone in this town is somebody’s ex,” she smiles. “The gay community bonds together because we’ve had to, the only reason we have the rights that we do today is because we went out and talked to people, we voted, we made our presence known, and made it known that we weren’t suffering from a disease because we’re gay. I never want to go back to a time where I can be sent to a psych ward because I was kissing a woman in public. I don’t believe that homosexuals are getting special rights, I think that we’re getting rights that we deserve as human beings. When we, as a society, become more welcoming, we’re going to notice more of a change in quality of life and existence for everyone.”
Calico Queen Tattoo is located at 501 Elk Ave #1, entrance on 5th Street, behind the Crested Butte Savings & Loan. Find her at Calicoqueentattoo.com and on Facebook.