CHA

Johnnie & Katrina

Avoiding the Tweetie Birds

Zigzag Black

Chattanooga was home for only one year. But during my stay, I formed friendships that went far and deep. I lack sufficient explanation for why or how; all I can say is that my friendships felt like they entered an accelerator. Within a month of living in Chattanooga, I found myself in a two-story historic home near downtown with five other roommates. Two of which were Johnny and Katrina Payne. Johnny and Katrina evoke an irrepressible atmosphere of joy. Johnny speaks of the outdoors as one would his own brother, and currently works as an outdoor guide and gear consultant. Katrina collaborates with local coffee shop and Anglican Church, The Mission, helping with their student ministry. One thing is certain: they care about people. They have shed the hidden agendas and adopted the practice of unbiased love. They walk the path of life with intentionality as their guide. And yet, they would be the first to reveal that such lifestyles are not void of mistakes and missteps. The art they chose as permanent identifiers illustrated their life’s intent, making them the ideal archetype for Woven Ink.

I initiated the interview in an older, industrial building: one of many sibling buildings in Chattanooga. The windows ran floor to ceiling allowing light to flood the room. The multi-colored brick about us gleamed, exposing it’s age. Johnny began telling about his induction into tattoo culture. He spoke of how he had to overcome particular stereotypes he held before even considering permanently inking. He described his internal struggle with a sly humor: “For a long time, I went back and forth on getting tattoos, and why I should get one. I wondered why they were important or what they meant. For a long time I moved away from getting them. I would see old ladies with Tweetie Bird on their forearm and I thought, ‘this is weird.’ That was my experience: Tweetie Bird forearm tattoos. I didn’t really want any part in that.” He goes on to describe his tattoo Conversion Experience. Appropriate to Johnny’s personality, it begins at a summer camp where he worked as a counselor. He narrates a daily ritual where he would draw a particularly meaningful symbol on his forearm. “I kept a sharpie on my dresser and I would wake up, take a shower, get dressed, and write it on there again. [..] I had the opportunity to share and encourage people simply through something that was written on my arm.” This process took place for nearly six months before Johnny took the plunge for a permanent version. His tattoo artist? A homeless man named Kevin. The place? An apartment in a government subsidized housing project.

This first tattoo set the stage for Johnny’s perception of skin art and its innate ability to start conversations. “For me, they are primarily an outward expression rather than an inward expression,” Johnny goes on to say. Even now, I am taken aback by this approach. Not in offense, but because it is unconventional. His primary goal is blessing. It is conversation; it is narrative. Johnny shifts into the light, osbscuring half of his face in shadow, while the subtlety of his smile remains.

Johnnie_Portrait1

 

Johnny elaborates on the overlapping grains of wheat. Katrina listens to the well-worn story, and yet, her expression reveals that it’s delight and vigor still resonate with her. Johnny explains how “all three pieces of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are represented in these heads of wheat. We use wheat to make bread and things that sustain and feed us. Essentially, it means that I am perfectly provided for.” He affectionately refers to it as the “Wheatie Trinity,” and cracks a smile.

As Johnny closes in on his narrative, Katrina drifts into the half lighting beside him. Her soft smile arrayed in wisdom, and an anchor on her thumb catching the sunlight. It’s delicate, small, and perfectly fitted around her finger. It’s also her most recent tattoo – inked by a student in her college ministry. “It’s a stick and poke tattoo. [..] One of my favorite songs is called Anchor by Beautiful Eulogy. [..] A particular lyric has stayed with me: ‘it’s profound that with all of these sinking ships around me / He surrounds me / covers me with His grace abounding / anchor of my soul, You sustain me.’” She reveals her trust that the Lord provides for her and Johnny; he is a constant when circumstances are not. “Water is turbulent,” she continues. “You don’t really know what an ocean is going to be like from one day to the next. And storms can affect them; they’re scary. That’s kind of how life is, and that’s kind of how God is in a way, but he also has the ability to calm it. And even if he doesn’t calm it, he has the ability to anchor you and sustain you through it.”

Katrina concludes her story as we transition to our next destination. We walk along Main Street, passing murals, worn down historic architecture, and small coffee shops. Caffeine and history dance together in the air like old acquaintances. People pass by us as Chattanoogans do: a subtle excitement, no time for presumption. Almost suddenly, we are overtaken by the shadow of a towering white building. Once a boarding school, it’s current occupation remains unknown to me. Johnny dons a tattered leather jackets, conjuring some inner Rebel with a Cause persona. He rolls back his sleeve, revealing the tri-wheat symbol once more.

black

After a moment of quiet, Katrina recounts the details of her “Χριστιανός” mark: a Greek word whose literal translation is “little Christ.” This word originated 2000 years ago in the city of Antioch recorded in the Book of Acts. The disciples first received this name after Christ’s crucifixion. “It was used as this derogatory term. Really it wasn’t a good thing to be called a little Christ – a reminder of what the Romans had done to their Christ.” However, the disciples soon wore the name as a badge of honor. Katrina expresses a sentiment not commonly heard in the Christian tradition: “I cringe at the title or the word “christian” a lot. Its a ‘christian school,’ or a ‘christian camp’ or its a ‘christian this or that.’ I have to wonder what that even means. It means so many different things now. The word and the title ‘Christian,’ has been drug through the mud backwards and forwards. And there’s so much negativity associated with it. And so many things that are called ‘Christian such and such,’ that aren’t genuine.”

I connect with her vulnerability.

For any of us attempting to follow a Truth in our hearts, be it Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, or any belief system, we face the challenges of the past. And the present. What do we do with the extremists who have profaned sacred beliefs? What of the marketers who have capitalized on them? What of any number of stunts that have been pulled in the name of “(insert belief system here),” that have ultimately devalued it? It’s painful. We are left dealing with the broken pieces of our tradition. We feel responsible for upholding the integrity of our beliefs while simultaneously apologizing for the horrors of its history. The burden of belief. But Katrina pivots, lighting the beacon once more. “After realizing what it actually means, I want to be proud of that. So I got it not as a, ‘Oh look I am a Christian, holier than though type of thing,’ but [..] it’s really humbling. Our name alone means little Christ. [I want to] live and look like Jesus Christ and that’s it.”

Katrina turns towards Johnny as I finish up my last few shots. Johnny paces in the background making lively gestures and practicing stand up comedy for Katrina. As we move to leave this place, Johnny wraps Katrina’s jacket around her like a delicate cloak. This last spontaneous shot perfectly describes their relationship. With Katrina glancing back and Johnny draping the coat around her, both grinning sweetly, they reflect at one another their joy, provision, and humility guarded by trust.

black