time with Chris Wednesday – Things&Ink

I was once young; my skin had become storytelling, marking milestones, confirming relationships, affirming identity.

Our contributor, Sarah Kay explores what changes and what stays the same when you get tattooed by the same artists years apart…

I met Chris Wednesday when I was young – blonde – and making decisions about my career that would define who I am. I do not know how to properly celebrate without a tattoo; so I asked Chris, a young, blonde, Michigan transplant to work on some script for me. One of those sentences he tattooed was from singer Scott Hutchison; at the time, I didn’t know how foreboding it would be.

Scott’s death was both predictable and unexpected, and I’ve mourned his loss for months and months. Chris’ script, on the inside of my left arm, is a testament to the job that I perform, day in, day out, the commitment I made, the work I would never stop conducting, the leadership position I wanted to be in at the time – and am now. He created two pieces: “all is not lost”, from Pedestrian Verse, the story of a woman surviving both her environment and mental illness; and “combat rock”, an ode to the Clash, to being boots on the ground. I was fighting against male dominance in my work, trying to define my role within an evolving legal landscape, and being a woman, my own, with her shortcomings and insecurities. Tattooing was how I expressed myself, and how I let others create on the canvas that I allowed myself to be.

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It took me seven years to go back to Chris, and with the wonderful gift that is hindsight, it was a painful mistake to wait that long.

Chris Wednesday now works three days a week out of Gnostic Tattoo in Bushwick; he lives in my old building; and we found each other where we left off. I am trying to understand, comprehend and tie together what happened to me in this time span, see what’s similar and what’s different. Location: the same. Bushwick was formative, so being tattooed there was comforting, relaxing, lowering my heart rate. Hair: vastly different. I navigated chemotherapy, several war zones, post traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, and tattooing at various pain levels, all over the world. Ushering in this new decade back to where it all started for me felt cathartic. I have a mentor, I’m heading toward continuous education. I feel grown. My identity is solid; my relationships, formative and lasting; my record as a worker, uncontested and praised. I still have imposter syndrome and felt the need to rally around what felt familiar and strong: what supported me, what got me through tough times, what empowered me to continue. Chris performed two of the strongest tattoos I had. At a time when I was shaking off a belief system and reconstructed myself, I found my way back.

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Gnostic Tattoo, located at the heart of Bushwick, is a relaxing, home-like place covered in plants in the windows, Tibetan flags, incense, and a sense of knowledge of the human body. Warm, welcoming, and strange enough not to feel in the beaten path or an industrial-sized walk-in tattoo shop in trendy Brooklyn, it feels like entering a space almost womb-like, where creativity sprouts like the spores of the plants. I worked with Chris on a tattoo of moon phases, deciding over an hour whether I wanted to have several ones or the traditional pagan “maiden, mother and crone”. Even though I’ll never be either of those three, the symbolism in the three phases of a woman’s life can find its expression in other forms – innocence, adulthood, and wisdom – that Chris translated with single needle outlines, dot work on the dark faces, and a realistic full moon in the middle: the moon on which we landed, both scientifically rendered and captivating by its distance. It felt like the phase I was in. He dotted the top of my wrist to complete the piece, at the end of a full sleeve, with comfort, revised placement, all of it without a single drop of coffee.

If Chris Wednesday is more widely known for his traditional style, he spends the days he’s not tattooing painting and working on ideas in his busy brain of his. Capable of alternating between detailed, realistic colour pieces and single needle, projected black and grey work, Chris has an eye for drawn-on script, feels challenged by gap fillers and includes bold lines and vivid colours. It adapts to the bodies of his clients in a large spectrum of gender, identities, and comfort. Chris works with the canvas he’s given and smiles, laughs and runs wild through the ideas he’s handed by either appointments or walk-ins. A transplant from Michigan, a former mechanic and still a traveling salesman in tattooing, Chris is incredible at adapting, fitting beauty into oddly placed curves, colouring a wide array of skin tones, embracing the complexity of the human body, in its transformative, painful, physical, physiological and psychological aspect of tattooing. A journey that can be exciting and extremely positive can turn into a permanent reminder of a disturbing fall-out, as our founder Alice Snape has recently discussed. I told Chris about pieces conducted on me that were so vastly different from what I discussed – some rushed, others representing values I know the artist doesn’t share and made me feel uncomfortable about what my work as a human rights lawyer means in other settings.

As Chris laid a pillow on his table for my comfort and asked if I needed a second one – I had recently gotten work on my stomach – he mentioned those are more frequent than I expected, and he was fully aware, at every moment, of the responsibility he holds not just as a creative, but as one who permanently alters bodies: that the experience should be as smooth as possible, the design as sophisticated as the client deserves and the placement, fitting for the body the client has – whatever shape it is. I met Chris when we were both in our mid-twenties, both blonde (although that wasn’t natural for me) and I thought my body lent itself to tattooing and other forms of adornment more than I do now. Discussing the anxiety I have about removing an article of clothing disappeared immediately, and we were back to being the same people we once were.

I thought I had so much to prove seven years ago; I was still working my way up professionally, entering debates to have my voice heard, and wanted, more than anything else, to assert my place in the law world. I had worked to hammer the point that my brain came with my body, even if it made traditional and patriarchal systems skeptical. I don’t regret any of the tattoos Chris gave me then, as they remind me I have come so far, even with stops and gaps in the meantime. Those gave me the luxury – there is no other word – to be myself fully, instead of reducing my appearance or presence for others. I am still working and improving, but with more stability, more recognition, and a smaller social circle that provides me with the encouragement I need. Chris’ tattoos on me this trip – moon phases, a lavender twig, and a song commemorating a break up – are the mature version of who I was then. They also represent his own, coming from guesting, co-owning, then being a permanent feature of Brooklyn. We have grown, yet we are still the same. In that, I want my body to represent this one full moon I am in.

Chris Wednesday tattoos at Gnostic Tattoo in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

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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.

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