Sunlight pours in from all corners of the former Fifth Reformed Dutch Church in Fishtown these days. Not long ago the windows of the 163-year-old church at 2345 E Susquehanna Avenue were filled with styrofoam and covered with vinyl siding, giving the building a dark, forbidding, and eerie look. The stained glass has since been restored and cleared of decades of half measures. Where church pews once stood, the sanctuary is now neatly divided into two large workspaces. High resolution computer monitors rest upon office desks in one half of the sanctuary. The other contains tattoo workstations with client chairs, arm rests, and wooden tool cabinets filled with needles, tubes, tips, grips, covers, and ink bottles. If one begins to forget that this was once a house of worship, large panels of stained glass on either sides of the workspace provide luminous, immediate reminders.
True Hand, an artful design and tattoo company, uses the sanctuary for its offices and studio. The firm’s owner, Mike Ski, purchased and renovated the church to give his business room to grow. He lives in the first story basement with his fiancée and three greyhounds. The concept of True Hand is new to most people. “We think of ourselves as a creative studio that features tattooing by appointment and graphic design services,” he said. Ski manages the tattoo studio. His business partner Jessie Jay runs the graphic design side of things. The two first met years ago when Ski was Jay’s tattoo artist.
The church is one saintly place to get inked. The interior is slick (and secular), but it still feels like a sanctuary. Ski’s renovations embraced the dramatic propositions of working inside such a space. He’s kept it feeling big–a place where inspiration is free to charge the air, striking where it may. Perhaps the people who built the church felt that way, too. Fifth Reformed Dutch Church was constructed in two parts. The gabled brick preaching hall was completed in 1863. The building’s defining architectural feature, the street-abutting brownstone westwork that became its entryway and vestibule, was added in 1886. That addition likely included the sweeping horseshoe gallery which still overlooks the sanctuary from the second story. The large, working class Dutch and German communities that attended services there left the neighborhood or acculturated over the next five generations. The building was eventually acquired by the Reform Church in America, the national organization for Dutch Reformed Christianity based in Michigan. The Church of the Living Word paid $15,000 for the building in 1968.
Ski, originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, started tattooing his friends right after high school while playing in punk bands. His artwork branched into album covers, t-shirts, and tour posters. Ski eventually wound up as a creative director in New York City. He led design teams that worked on promotional material for well-known bands in the mid-2000s. He continued his tattoo work and eventually left New York for Philadelphia. Ski opened True Hand in 2013 on York Street, just three blocks from where his studio is now. That he would buy and renovate a 150-year-old church isn’t necessarily shocking to anyone familiar with his tattooing style. A Mike Ski tattoo is deeply inspired by the art form’s history, but not trapped by it. His ink work is clear, balanced, and timeless, yet modern. They lack the throwback kitsch of “old school” and neo-traditional tattoo artists.
Despite his popularity and distinguished reputation, Ski describes himself simply as an artist and business owner to whom a little good fortune brought something cool. “I pretty much Forrest Gumped my way into it,” he said with a laugh, reflecting on the 4,000 square foot church. “Artists are particular about pretty much everything. Contributing to the way things look, whether it be the sign on a building or the building itself, is important to us. As creative people, we are drawn to protecting things with aesthetic.”
Ski’s business model can be explained, in part, by punk culture’s DIY philosophy of self-teaching, self-empowerment, and personal responsibility. Jay explains that this attitude and their long association with punk communities “was like a degree Mike and I both didn’t know we were getting.”
While Ski was in the process of getting approvals from the City for remodeling the church he went up and down Susquehanna Avenue knocking on doors, introducing himself to neighbors, and creating good will around the project with Fishtown residents. His purchasing the old church was something of a saving grace to historic preservationists too. A developer had previously eyed the church for demolition just as preservation activist Oscar Beisert was putting together a nomination to place the building on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Philadelphia Historical Commission voted against the nomination, but the developer backed out just as Ski began looking at the property. The tattoo artist purchased the building from the Church of the Living Word in 2017 with financial assistance from Heather Hanowitz and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). Hanowitz helped Ski arrange a small business loan under a PIDC community development program that covered the cost of the church and its renovations–more than half a million dollars. True Hand reopened inside Old Fifth Dutch Reformed Church in April 2019. A few weeks later the project won the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s annual Preservation Achievement Award.
Today the building contains few items from its past. The rows and rows of pews are gone. The organ is gone, but its brass tubes remain like crayons in a box hung on the wall. The wood floor is a shade lighter on the preacher’s end where the chancel once raised the pulpit. But a small vestigial cross still hangs in the sanctuary above the buzzy din of tattoo guns.