“Stick and Poke” is a kind of tattooing that involves using a sharp point and some “ink.” Also known as a stick n poke, Hand Tattoo or a DIY Tattoo, Stick and Poke is an ancient form of body art that has thought to show various significance in the long history of human experience on earth. Health, birth, death, rites of passage and other rituals & ceremonies have historically been reasons for tattooing in almost all ancient cultures spanning the entire globe. Those tattoos have been of the stick and poke variety.
How to stick and poke tattoo: Simply dip a fine tip into something dark and liquid, and then poke into some skin – not all the way through the skin, just into it. An interesting epidermal/biological phenomenon traps this foreign dark substance into the skin, to be displayed through the top layers for life. This achieves the same effect as the modern tattoo machine (also called a tattoo gun), and is permanent when done correctly. It is a slow process and is usually painful.
The trick is doing it with desired and predictable results and doing it safely, to prevent the spread of infection or disease.
To properly Stick and Poke Tattoo you need these things: a sterile sharp thing such as a needle, sterile clean toxin-free inky thing, such as tattoo ink, sanitary wipes and rubbing alcohol, medical gloves, a clean surface, witch-hazel to calm the skin, an ointment for after-care and a bandaid for your boo-boo. If you want a nice design, you’ll need a stencil. Access to warm soapy water is a plus. And “green soap” is great to have for wiping during the process.
Popularity: Prisons and middle schools were likely places for the practice in the 20th century. A sewing needle and pen ink (although not ideal materials), are the only two things one really needs, and these arevery accessible. Without access to a tattooing machine, and with lots of time and perhaps pent-up angst (or inspiration), we can understand the inclination. Now popular culture has embraced this type of body art, and stars such as Miley Cyrus and the cast of Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls sport stick and pokes.
But, why do it yourself? Perhaps it is “DIY” coming into vogue, or a push back to the modern age of perfection & automation. Or just wanting to do this sensitive ritual at home with friends and without the cost and possible stress of working with a stranger. Whatever the reason, all kinds of people today are marking themselves with ink and loving every imperfect minute.
Want one? Take a look at our Stick and Poke Tattoo kits and please poke safely!
I was 18 years old when I got my first tattoo. My dad looked at it, looked at me, and said, “Don’t get any more.” I’ve since gotten another one, and what I thought would cleanse my palette whetted it even more. Eventually, a friend (who is also a skilled artist) told me she does stick-and-poke tattoos for almost everyone she knows. I immediately considered it.
After all, they’re pretty much everywhere I look, including my Instagram feed. Even celebrities such as Rihanna and Ke$ha areopting for “hand poke” art over the traditional machine.
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Although the process has been plagued with its fair share of safety concerns, there are more and more hand poke shops cropping up, which means tattoo professionals are dedicating their artistry to the unconventional form. Ahead, two artists, Tiffani Walton,hand poker from SlowPoke Ink, and Muriel de Mai,machine tattooer from her self-named shop, give their expert commentary on the never-ending machine versus hand-poke debate.
What’s the Big Difference?
The bare-bones difference boils down to how the ink is inserted into the skin. Walton describes the process of hand poke as “a sterilized tattoo needle is attached to some sort of grip, dipped in ink, and pushed into the skin by hand. The needle goes just as deep and the results are just as permanent.”
Meanwhile, the classic rotary machine used by Mai works like this: “There’s a small motor encased in each rotary tattoo machine that moves the attached tattoo needles up and down in a smooth, almost cyclical pattern.” Based on application, the machine is the only thing that separates hand poke from traditional rotary, but with the absence of the machine, Walton favors the new stylistic possibilities and challenges that come with it.
Let’s Talk About Safety
Regardless of the method, there are always key things to look for: sterile equipment, clean surfaces, and proper hygiene, to name a few. Walton says hand poke is just as safe as machine “as long as the artist is experienced, reputable, and clean.”
But where things get tricky is when people tattoo at home. Although it seems like an easy recreational activity, Walton says to never give or get hand-poke tattoos. “The typical homemade hand-poke supplies are a sewing needle, thread, and pen or craft ink. Sewing needles are much wider than tattoo needles and open the skin too far, causing blowouts and unnecessary scarring.” She continues listing things such as improper sterilization, disposal, and wrong ink type as even more reasons to stick to professional shops.
It’s not just hand poke, either. You can find machine tattoo kits for as little as $53.95 online (seriously, what?!). While Mai says a lot of professionals start out this way, “you have to keep in mind that you can contaminate other people or yourself if you do not follow the health and safety measures. It is also important to have good material when you are learning because usually pre-prepared tattoo kits are really cheap and contain bad materials that could be harmful.”
The Healing Process
There’ve been tons of myths flying around about the healing processes for both machine and hand poke. Machine-based tattoos, depending on size and type of shading, take two to three weeks. As for hand poke, Walton says they tend to heal faster. Plus, an added bonus of “less itching and scabbing” makes up for time spent in the chair.
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A New Kind of Experience
The first thing you’ll likely hear about hand-poke tattoos is how much longer they take than machine. Like hours longer. This can be chalked up to the tedious nature of having to individually poke every cell, depending on how extravagant the design is, says Walton.
But the time taken isn’t always a negative thing. Walton says, “Most clients describe the hand-poke experience as quieter, less painful, and generally more chill. I keep the atmosphere in my room fairly peaceful compared to a lot of artists and that influences their perception as well.”
The counterculture nature of hand poke is one of the reasons people love them. Even Mai, who is indeed a professional, thinks it’s “unfortunate that the more side, underground form of tattooing is becoming so professionalized.” There’s something rebellious about getting a tattoo outside of what your parents, or grandparents, once saw as rebellious. And even if not for the rebel inside us all, hand poke is a new form of art that many people don’t want to see minimized (or crushed) under professional standards.
The Choice of Craft
When it comes to deciding if you want hand poke or machine, it’s time to think about what kind of tattoo you want. Each process offers different kinds of styles, strengths, and challenges. Walton notes her style of tattooing “embraces small details, stipple shading, and natural content, which looks different when done by a machine.”
However, she “typically turns down script, full-color and realism designs, because I know my coworkers who use a machine can do it better than I.” Hand-poke and machine tattoos are less about ink insertion and more about varying styles. It’s not just underground versus mainstream, but thinking about what kind of art you want, and which type fits your vision better, too. After all, it is your body and it is going to be there permanently.
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There it is. A simple guide to the world of hand-poke and machine tattoos. Either way you lean, you’ll at least know what’s in store. And as for the hand poke I was going to get from my friend, I think I’ll opt out and go with an artist who definitely knows what they’re doing.