I’ve spent a solid chunk of my life in tattoo shops. It all started ten years ago when I desperately wanted my lip pierced as I was knee-deep in my teenage emo phase. My parents refused, but instead told me I could get a tattoo on my arm if I wanted. Honestly, I still can’t wrap my head around the logic given that I could have taken the lip piercing out at any time while the tattoo would stay on my body for eternity. But, I didn’t question it — tattoos were way cooler, anyway.
On my 16th birthday, I waltzed into Rock City Tattoo in Belleville, New Jersey arm in arm with my poor mother. I left a half hour later with an outline of a sun gracing my right tricep. I thought I was the coolest teen in the tristate, and for that one glorious moment, I was. From then on out, I never missed a chance to wear t-shirts that showed off my arm and a newfound sense of adulthood, though that was something I hadn’t quite reached yet.
All in all, I felt fucking cool. 2012 Tyler incoming.
Since then, my view on tattoos has changed. I spent my earlier years carefully planning my tattoos. My sun tattoo artwork was two years in the making and I’d thought about its reasoning countless times. Until I was 19, a tattoo needed some sort of meaning or I wouldn’t get it.
Now, I can have a friend or an artist draw up something I like and I’ll say, “Sure, put it on me.”
So here I am. Ten years later, tons of tattoos with no meaning, and even some ink I’ve obtained through sketchy circumstances. And that’s what I’ve come here to talk about. My most sketchily obtained tattoos.
From that time in my college dorm room with an art school buddy to my parent’s kitchen and a tipsy brother, I haven’t always been “safe” when getting tattoos. Yeah, it was stupid, but I was young and dumb.
But out of all of my tattoos, there are two that stand out — a window with an AC unit on my right leg, inked by my brother’s ex-girlfriend on the floor of my old apartment, and three dots on my right middle finger, done by yours truly while drunk in my old kitchen.
Why? Because both of them are stick and poke tattoos.
What Is a Stick & Poke Tattoo?
For the unfamiliar, stick and poke tattoos are tattoos done solely with a needle and ink instead of using a modern electrical tattoo gun. Stick and poke tattooers will repeatedly poke the skin over and over after dipping a tattoo needle into ink to create whatever design they want. The needle is typically attached to a rod of sorts so tattooers will have a better grip when getting the job done.
This is a practice that dates as far back as ancient Egypt and long predates modern tattooing as we know it. Essentially, this is the traditional way of tattooing.
Stick and poke has become more popular in recent times due through punk scenes dating back to the ’70s, where folks would use safety pins and India ink to jab tattoos into their skin. It’s also the method prisoners all over the world rely on to get jailhouse ink. Eventually, the practice made its way into smalltown USA and art school college dorms as an inherent “fuck you” toward mom and dad.
Now, there are professional stick and poke tattoo artists that solely practice with this traditional method and don’t use a tattoo gun whatsoever. The practice takes a lot longer, but folks that participate in stick and poke tend to prefer how similar the practice feels to drawing.
My Story With Stick & Poke
Raven Cardone is a friend of mine from high school. She’s always been known around town for her incredible artwork, but she began playing around with tattooing around the time she began dating my brother during my early 20s.
After throwing a wig party for my old roommate Chloe’s birthday a few years back, Raven tagged along with my brother and slept over that night. She brought with her all of the tattoo gear she bought on Amazon, and the next morning, I offered her my leg to let her practice in exchange for a free tattoo.
One minute into the process, her tattoo gun broke and I was agreeing to a stick and poke without too much thought. It took forever and it hurt. The pain was so different from any tattoo gun I’ve experienced, but we finished up and there it was — an air conditioning unit inside of a window on my leg. Voilà, as they say.
I recently asked Raven about our stick and poke experience and if she thought it was safe. “Was it safe? Not in the slightest,” she told me. “Though my needles were professional and sterile, I never wore gloves and sometimes used vodka or tequila to sterilize the area. I hope my mentor doesn’t see this.”
Obviously, I’m not endorsing this type of behavior, but I know that teenagers, prisoners, and drunk folks all over the world are getting poorly thought out stick and poke tattoos at this very moment.
Raven told me that the only way to stay safe during tattooing of any form is to be professionally trained, and that there’s no way around that. And, of course, in the words of the artist herself, “Wear gloves, girl.”
Raven eventually became a legitimate tattoo artist working out of Connected by Ink in Belleville, New Jersey. Because she’s now a professional, she acts like one. She takes all proper procedures pre and post-tattooing like any other tattoo artist should.
Because of this experience, I had a very one-note perception of stick and poke tattooing. To me, handpoking was synonymous with shitty back alley tattoos that can only lead to a funny story in the future. And maybe an infection.
But this also made me wonder: how are handpoke artists that solely stick and poke learning the practice?
Chatting With a Professional Stick & Poke Artist
I met stick and poke tattoo artist Grey Fitzgerald outside of a bar in Boystown, Chicago a few weeks ago completely by chance, and soon we were chatting about everything tattoo-centric. I later learned her story and became completely obsessed with her practice. Fitzgerald tells me:
“I started experimenting with handpoke tattooing in between taking the bar exam and starting at my former law firm. I finally had a month-long break to do nothing, so I wanted to jump back into art. I’ve been drawing all my life, and I wanted to become a tattoo artist even before starting law school. When I started getting tattooed, I would draw my own designs and get them tattooed onto me by professional artists. I also used to draw hyper-realistic pointillism pieces using pens and paper, so the handpoked technique felt the most intuitive to me.
“During my break, I bought tattoo-grade materials and started practicing exclusively on fake skins. I did not start tattooing myself (let alone other people) until I had a professional tattoo artist as a mentor to help guide me through the sanitation process. It was serendipitous that I met my mentor, so I did not start practicing with any objective or end goal in mind.”
As someone who has received a stick and poke on a hardwood floor, this was fascinating to me. A lawyer turned stick and poke artist was not a pipeline I expected. In addition, Fitzgerald was all about professionalism from the very beginning of her practice — even when she didn’t realize this was something she’d do for a living. She refuses to tattoo without proper sanitation and safety precautions, she follows all necessary procedures and abides by all the nitty-gritty nuances she’s learned under her mentor.
After speaking with Fitzgerald, she full throttle wiped away my perceptions of stick and poke tattoing.
Most stick and poke artwork has a very casual vibe, and this is something Fitzgerald takes into consideration.
“I think handpoked tattoos are often viewed as an amateur art that exists primarily as an activity young, reckless people do in a basement during a party,” says Fitzgerald. “At-home tattooing in any capacity, whether it be handpoked or machine, is dangerous. I don’t think you see as many handpoked tattoo artists working in proper studios or shops (for a variety of reasons), so not many people know that it should be treated as a professional service.”
Are Stick and Poke Tattoos Safe? What To Know About Getting a Stick & Poke
I’ve been going to John Starr of Gnostic Tattoo in Bushwick, Brooklyn for the past three years, and it’s safe to say I trust this Brooklyn tattoo artist with my life. I wanted to know how other professional tattoo artists feel about stick and pokes.
Though he has never done stick and poke, he tells me all health and safety rules apply the same way they would for a tattoo done with a tattoo gun. Equipment has to be sterile, the tattoo must be done in a clean and safe environment whilst wearing gloves, wiping must be done with disposable wipes and when skin is broken, gloves can’t touch any equipment that’s not properly covered. Proper tattoo after care is also important, and it’s important to treat the area with the best tattoo soaps, tattoo lotions and tattoo sunscreens to keep your ink safe.
Though I’ve now spoken to many artists about the safety of stick and poke tattooing, I also wanted to get a dermatologist’s opinion.
“Like regular tattoos, going to a professional, in-shop stick and poke tattoo artists with hundreds of hours of training and experience is safer than any at-home DIY artists,” says Dr. Anar Mikailov, MD, FAAD, founder of KP Away and Skintensive. “You should ask about their sterilization procedure, make sure the shop is clean, and read reviews of the artist online.”
When it comes to at-home tattooing, Dr. Mikailov had this to say:
“At-home tattoos have many risks and variables that increase the chance of infection, whether it’s a bacterial skin infection or even a viral infection that’s transmitted by blood. With skin infections, you will need to see a dermatologist for treatment. Even then, the tattoo may be discolored and deformed.”
Therefore, it’s best not to be like me and avoid non-professional tattoos altogether. The “what ifs” simply aren’t worth it.
So are stick and poke tattoos safe? After consulting experts and tattoo artists, here’s the bottom line:
If you are receiving a tattoo in a sanitary tattoo shop done by a professional artist who is taking all of the proper procedures to tattoo your skin safely, then yes, stick and poke tattooing is safe. (For the purposes of this article, we’re not talking about the safety of traditional tattoo ceremonies practiced in some cultures.)
“The risk of poke tattoos in a professional shop is likely the same as that with a traditional tattoo gun,” says Dr. Mikailov.
In retrospect, it’s clear that my youthful stick and poke experiences were not safe by any means. Every stick and poke I’ve received has been a dangerous one. However, work performed by a professional stick and poke artist in a sanitary environment, especially when performed by an experienced artist like Grey Fitzgerald, should be just as safe as any tattoo done with a tattoo gun.
“Find an experienced artist who knows proper sterilization techniques,” says Dr. Mikailov.
Your safety is your safety, so make sure you take it seriously. Sure, a DIY stick and poke sounds like a fun time and a cool memory to be had, but the risks are no joke.
If you’re a fan of the handpoke aesthetic, go to a handpoke artist at a tattoo shop. Do some research on artists that stick and poke in your area through Google or hashtags on Instagram. Most handpoke artists, like Fitzgerald, tend to post their pokes on Instagram to collect more clients, so it will be an easier task than you may think.
All in all, just don’t be stupid, like I once was. Get your tattoos (whether handpoked or done with a tattoo gun) done professionally no matter the circumstance. And when you’re done, be sure to practice proper aftercare with tattoo soaps.