getting to know Stella Vlad – Things&Ink

As I have mentioned before, I am a creature of habit. But some habits have inevitably been shattered. What I love the most about New York City is its ability to be a port in a storm; in a life that constantly hits unexpected turbulence, I remember the persistence of places in the city to shelter. Think of tattooing that way: they are moments, snapshots, and lyrics on your body, in a way that you have wanted; not something you passively accept as your fate, but an alteration that you know will also alter the way you see yourself. In that I’ve seen tattooing as my own armour, places where skin has been thickened by ink and scarred tissue is more resistant than what inflames in the sunlight.

Not all tattoos have the meaningful, weighty significance that the general public seems to ascribe to them. We’ve all been asked, “what does this tattoo mean to you?” – and for some of us, they do, in their own way, have meaning. But the process, the artist, and the location can have a much more significant impact on the duration and approach one has to their inked skin once it’s over. After a long and difficult winter, I retreated along the banks of the Hudson River, where world-renowned Patrick Conlon opened his own shop, Speakeasy, at the heart of the gorgeous town of Peekskill, about an hour north of New York. There, a bright, large, airy space covered in murals – including a spot featuring a starry night sky – he hired local artists and talents, gave them jobs, and collected an eclectic, both traditional and modern, group of artists, who in turn elected a queen – Stella Vlad.

Having been tattooed by Patrick several times before, and having taken days to go to Peekskill, enjoy its brewery, coffee shop, and small bookstores, I had seen Stella but never dared to approach her before. It’s a shame, as she is one of the nicest, kindest, and funniest people in this community – someone who is the embodiment of open arms and hospitality. I came with baggage, yet it didn’t matter. I was starting work on my stomach, a body part that causes me anxiety, and at no point was it a problem to accommodate the hills and dips of my body, its swollen curves or the ridges of a ribcage. Stella and I discussed what is a simple script – but one that encompasses my life as a whole – for a while, pondering flourishes, weighing sizes. Every single moment comforted me in knowing I would have the tattoo that I wanted, and as time passed, the little apprehension I still had about a difficult body part disappeared. At each step of the way, Stella explained what she was doing, when and how I should breathe, and in what felt like the blink of an eye, it was over.

Of course, I wasn’t the first client of hers to suffer from anxiety and body dysmorphia. It very much, in facts, pales in comparison to clients who identify as trans or who have been through major surgery, whether wanted or required. And so, Stella’s vision and placement suggestions were informed by an intimate knowledge of the various stages of an individual’s journey and the power of identity, how it can be a tool of suffering or one of empowerment. Her comfort within the shop is also a testament to the work Speakeasy brought to downstate New York: an inclusive, non-discriminating, and welcoming place for people of all walks of life, regardless of their class, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. Speakeasy maintained a traditional vision of the art of tattooing by allowing modern and realistic creation, and provides a space in which a new generation can work, evolve and experiment safely. For clients, a place such as this one, close to the homiest coffee shop found outside Scandinavia, where other local business owners come say hi, and residents say hello, feels a million miles away from the busy rattle and hum of New York City. Being tattooed by Stella Vlad felt like a privileged moment.

Being an exile has defined my entire life. I had to cross a border into a civil war as a child, I found a home away from home as a late teen, and it wasn’t until very recently that I planted roots – roots I will leave to return to where I come from. The Menzingers’ new album contains themes of forced travel, solitude on deserted islands and the gaping void of separation, but by welcoming it, by accepting it as a fact of life, it had entered my body before Stella tattooed it on me. Every sensation was acknowledged and accounted for; her wonderful fiancé Emily being present added to the sentiment of being welcomed into a fold. I had known Patrick when he worked at Graceland in the early 2010s, and had followed him up on the Metro North. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little far away to appreciate what remains present, in your mind, in your heart, and in this case on your stomach, regardless of distance.

Stella Vlad grew up a punk kid and remained one, playing in a band, listening to music that reminds me of my own high school years, but offers wisdom beyond that – an intuition, that one can only presume has come from travelling through certain paths to find an understanding of the relationship with our bodies. The way our mind sees them, how we want them altered, and that carefully crafted art can inspire change. As the tattoo heals, I will be in three different countries on two different continents, and the sentiment of exile will perdure, but I grow up and create new habits, new locals, and new mindsets. Stella is capable of accommodating an extremely wide range of styles, and I saw on her next client, how the tattoo fits them and every part of what had been done previously showed experience. A well trodden path can sometimes be as exciting and as powerful as exiting a comfort zone. If the saying is true, and what we create can save us – then Stella Vlad added a few months to my life line.

Sarah’s ‘hello exiles’ tattoo by Stella Vlad

Sarah Kay is a very, very tattooed international human rights lawyer living between Paris and New York. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sarah has kept its taste for cold rain and the rewards that come from sitting still under pressure. You’ll probably find her in London drinking wine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: