I was attending a co-worker’s birthday party when, in need of a drink, I walked into the kitchen to find the birthday girl being pricked with a sewing needle and India ink. It was her present from a friend—and for a small fee, I was told I too could get in on the action. I declined. Was this really what the kids were doing these days? Stabbing each other with sharp objects and ink? Well, yeah, Katy Perry’s lover giving her a heart-shaped stick’n’poke in one of her videos definitely affirms the artform’s youthful revival.
I associate the rise of stick’n’poke tattoos with the recent popularity of all things punk rock, but it’s really a modern take on an age-old tradition. The Maori used sharpened bones to cut designs into the skin and then tap pigment into the wounds. The ancient Egyptians are believed to have used wooden instruments with metal tips and soot. And until the invention of the tattoo gun in 1891, Westerners used a tattoo method adapted from the Tahitians after explorer James Cook’s sailors took up the practice in the 1600s. These cultures used the same basic model: a sharp object dipped in some sort of pigment that was hammered/scraped/poked into the skin.
Since that first party, I have had more than one friend get drunk and break out a BIC pen for a quick and dirty tat. But I’ve also seen stick’n’poke stands at craft fairs, and I’ve witnessed more than one tattoo parlor advertise the old-school service. Most recently, I started working with a bunch of DIY tattoo enthusiasts who all frequented the same amateur artist. My coworkers frequently traded meals and scotch for one of her at-home tattoos. I decided to put my curiosities to rest and tagged along when my boyfriend went to her to get some new ink the old fashioned way.
The tattoo artist decided to remain anonymous, due to the murky legal area this all occupies, though she was more than happy to answer a few basic questions. Although she agreed with my initial assumption that stick’n’poke’s popularity has been partly fueled by the rise of punk and DIY, she says there is more to this resurgence than mere trendiness: “Everyone’s moving away from manufactured goods that were made as quickly and cheaply as possible. Everyone is going and getting handmade, crafted, made-in-America type goods, and the same is true for tattoos. People don’t want to get flash off the walls anymore.”
She first tried tattooing the more conventional way, apprenticing at a parlour in Montreal post-university, but says she hated the feeling of using a tattoo gun and ended up “drawing a bunch of shitty tattoos that people came to get on a whim.” She got her first pin-prick tattoo at 20 when a friend experimented by giving her “a moon that looks more like a piece of swiss cheese.” Despite this lukewarm introduction to the form, the artist has no intention of going back to the gun. For her, stick’n’pokes are superior because they’re cheap, heal quickly and, most importantly, are a slow process, allowing for an intimate experience for her and whoever she is tattooing.
My first query was, of course, a style one. Since the only DIY tats I’d seen before hers were punk emblems and prison tats (OK, those were only on TV), I assumed the form lent itself to a particular style. She quickly dismissed these restrictions.
“I think often people assume stick’n’pokes are limited to certain styles, like harder lines with not as much shading. But you can achieve anything with stick’n’poke, because really, a tattoo gun is the same just a lot faster.”
Her clients are evidence of this. Some get only straight lines and bold colours (my boyfriend opted for a simple design that mashed up his punk inclinations with some good old fashioned illuminati insignia). Others opt for shading and more complex images, like my coworker, who has a beautifully coloured rose, or my boss, who has Piglet holding a red balloon on her upper arm.
The resurgence of stick’n’pokes as a party game is not without its negatives. When I voiced my concerns about hygiene, the tattoo artist agreed, saying people need to be careful. “I get the fear of transferring disease, because it’s not often that you talk to someone who got a stick’n’poke tattoo that has been sterilized. Most people are drunk at a party and pull out some ballpoint pen, and use that ink and a sewing needle they probably didn’t even burn with a lighter. I think that’s a huge risk with their building popularity.”
Despite being worried about her drunk brethren, the tattoo artist still believes the rising popularity of stick’n’poke is nothing to fear. “I remember wearing plaid skirts and army boots and studded everything when I was 14, and that was frowned upon. Now you walk into ZARA and everything is studded. Who ever thought that would happen? With that I think comes stick’n’pokes.”
Like so many counter culture practices before it, stick’n’poke is slowly slipping into the realm of the socially acceptable.
Our anonymous tattoo artist gave us a quick rundown of how she gives a sterile tattoo from the comfort of her living room:
1 // Establish clean and dirty fields (both of which are lined with paper towel). The clean field is where you keep sanitized needles (she personally uses tattoo gun needles) and whatever super clean receptacles you’re keeping your ink in. The dirty field is for discarded needles and used paper towel.
2 // Slap on some rubber gloves and wipe the skin down with rubbing alcohol.
3 // Draw an outline of the tattoo on the skin with a thin layer of tattoo ink. Sometimes she will use transfer paper or India ink to draw a preliminary mock-up on the skin, but more often she freehands it.
4 // Dip the needle in the ink a few times to build up a layer of dry ink—this will help keep the ink on the needle as you go. Other people use a thread attached to the needle as an “anchor” to accomplish basically the same thing.
5 // Pull the skin taught so the image doesn’t get distorted and start poking. Dip and poke, dip and poke. Periodically wipe away excess ink with a wet paper towel.
6 // Once the tattoo is done wipe it well with a damp paper towel and then apply some aloe or other soothing lotion.
7 // Wrap the tat in saran wrap—to keep it clean—and then voila. Tattoo complete.
photography // Laura Tuttle