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Stick and poke tattoos, also called hand-poked tattoos or machine-free tattoos, have been around for a long time. Yet in the past year, they saw an unprecedented rise in popularity and resurgence as people turned to them as a solution during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown for the problem of not being able to go to a tattoo studio for a standard tattoo. Yet this isn’t just a fleeting trend that’ll fade with the much-awaited lifting of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. In fact, it’s an art form and movement in and of itself with history and legitimacy that is worth learning about and understanding, especially if you’re interested in partaking in it yourself.
So to honor the stick and poke tattoo, here is an in-depth guide teaching you everything you could possibly want to know about hand-poked tattoos from what they are, to where they come from, to what you should know about them if you want to get one, to information that can help you decide what kind of stick and poke tattoo to get.
Today, when a person gets a tattoo, it’s most likely done with an electric tattoo machine, which is what is used in most tattoo studios. These machines are basically a bar with one or a group of needles attached to it that is connected to an oscillating unit which rapidly and repeatedly drives the needles into and out of the skin, inserting ink at a rate of 80 to 150 times per second. These needles are highly sterile, made for single use, and packaged individually.
However, this is by no means the only method of tattooing; it just happens to be the most common one we see today. But a tattoo can be made by any insertion of ink into the dermis layer of the skin, which can be done by a number of methods, one of them being the stick and poke method. The way this works is that a person used a single needle to hand-tap ink into the skin. As opposed to the electric tattoo machine, a stick and poke tattoo is done manually with no electricity, with a single needle that enters the skin at a much slower rate than the 80 injections per second or more a machine can achieve.
These days, stick and poke tattoos are mostly associated with the DIY and punk movements or even angsty high school kids. However, they actually have a long history that you might not know about. In general, evidence has been found to show that tattooing has been practiced all around the world for thousands and thousands of years. Naturally, when people were getting tattoos in Ancient Egypt in 3351 BCE, they weren’t using an electric tattoo machine to do so. They didn’t have electricity. But what they did have was ink and the ability to sharpen sticks and bones.
One of the oldest tattooing traditions that we know was executed through a stick and poke type of method is the Japanese tebori tattoos, which have been around since at least 297 AD if not as early as 5000 BCE, from when we have clay figurines with tattoos on their faces pointing to evidence that tattoos may have been a part of Japanese culture for even longer than any other.
At any rate, we do know that there are writings documenting tattooing as a Japanese cultural practice from around 300 AD, most likely to symbolize status. However, by 700 AD or so, the Japanese began to mark people with tattoos as a form of punishment, a practice that continued until the 1600s and is responsible for the association between tattoos and crime in Japanese culture.
These tattoos, done by artists called horishi, were performed by poking hand-made needles into the skin, often following a stencil created by a different artist. Many of these tebori tattoos were highly detailed and very large, which means that it sometimes took years to fully complete one.
Not too far from Japan in Kambuja, what is now called Cambodia, another stick and poke tattooing practice called Sak Yant originated 1000 years ago, eventually spreading across Southeast Asia where it has become popular, especially in Thailand. This is a religious tradition, with the artists being Buddhist monks who use a steel needle top attached to the end of a long piece of bamboo to prick religious writing and designs into the skin.
In the Ta Moko tradition originating in Eastern Polynesia in 1769, fragments of albatross bones were used to tattoo people’s faces and heads to signify tribe membership, wealth, travel, and strengths.
All of these traditions and more persevered in one form or another as the larger culture of tattooing developed and many of them continue to persist even after the invention of the electric tattooing machine. In the West, stick and poke tattoos began to have a resurgence in the countercultural movement of the 1960s as a form of self-expression and rebellion. And to this day, there continues to be a large group in the tattoo community who spearhead this practice, with some very successful and popular artists like Grace Neutral exclusively offering stick and poke tattoos and many prominent celebrities getting stick and poke tattoos and sharing them with their large followings.
So what keeps people choosing to create and get stick and poke tattoos even as the electric tattooing machine has taken a near monopoly on the tattoo culture? Why are there some proponents of stick and poke tattoos who won’t get any other kind?
Well, there are a few reasons. One of the main ones is that stick and poke tattooing is thought by many to feel like a more intimate, visceral experience. One can feel and even hear the needle entering the skin, can more easily hold a conversation with the tattoo artist without the noise of the electric machine drowning everything out, creating a sacred atmosphere and a stronger bond between artist and tattoo-ee. For some, the fact that the process is more drawn-out, intensive, and even painful feels like a form of “earning” the tattoo in a way that is more real and authentic than they might feel getting the same tattoo with a stick and poke machine.
But, of course, that isn’t the entire story. We’d be remiss not to mention another one of the primary reasons why people choose to get a stick and poke tattoo: convenience. Not only are stick and poke tattoos generally more affordable than ones done by a machine (unless you’re going to a very famous and renowned stick and poke artist), but they can also be done at home without access to specialized equipment and training.
That’s why so many punks and high school kids gravitate toward a stick and poke tattoo. You don’t have to be 18 to get into a tattoo studio and you don’t even necessarily need to find an artist. You can just get a friend with some drawing skills and bravery to do it for you at home – or even do it for yourself. It doesn’t take a quarantine to explain why that might be appealing to some people, though the Coronavirus has really put it into perspective.
That being said, this exact approach of getting stick and pokes because they’re cheap, easy, and don’t require proper safety procedures or skills is one of the reasons that there’s a pretty fervent anti-stick and poke movement out there, with extra-harsh backlash coming during this pandemic when stick and poke tattoos have suddenly skyrocketed in visibility. Many people will implore others not to get stick and poke tattoos because they say they are unsafe and unsanitary.
And, yes, this is definitely true if you’re using a sewing needle in your dirty bathroom with no prior research about proper tattoo safety. However, stick and poke tattoos are in no way inherently less safe than machine tattoos. Like with any tattoo, it’s up to the person getting the tattoo to do their research and find a skilled, experienced artist who prioritizes safety and follows proper sanitation protocols. As long as you do that – and follow their aftercare instructions – you are no more likely to get an infection with a stick and poke tattoo than with a machine tattoo.
Beyond that, some people simply just don’t respect stick and poke tattoos very much. They see them as dirty, haphazard, and even trashy. But like we said above, stick and poke tattooing actually has a long and culturally important history, especially when compared to machine tattooing which was only invented in 1891. To look down upon and disparage stick and poke tattoos is to disrespect the millennia-long tradition that, for many, many years, was the only type of tattooing that even existed.
Another misconception about stick and poke tattoos is that they are in some way more temporary than machine tattoos. And that’s not entirely true. When done correctly, a stick and poke will be just as permanent as a tattoo done by an electric tattooing machine. But when the tattooer doesn’t know what they’re doing, poking the needle too far or not far enough into the skin, that’s when you might see ink blowout (the spread of ink in the tattooed area) or the ink not properly staying in the skin.
Of course, it is worth emphasizing that stick and poke tattoo safety is incredibly important, especially if you’re going to do it with somebody who isn’t a professional outside of a sanitized tattoo studio. So the first thing you need to know is that in order to get a safe stick and poke tattoo and reduce your risk of infection as much as possible, you absolutely should go to an experienced professional.
A safe stick and poke tattoo is one that is done in a sterile environment with a sterilized needle and sterile ink. The tattoo artist should be wearing gloves, your skin should be properly cleaned before the tattoo, and outside contaminants should be reduced as much as possible. That’s the only way to avoid ink poisoning, infections, and the spread of pathogens.
Of course, the best thing you can do is to go to a reputable studio and experienced artist. But we’re not ignorant to the existence and appeal of at-home stick and poke tattoo kits and if your area is still under lockdown and you can’t go out to an actual tattoo studio, we know you might be tempted to try one. Now, we’re not going to tell you not to – you’re adults (we hope!). But if you are going to give yourself a stick and poke tattoo at home, do yourself the favor of taking the risk very, very seriously. Hepatitis is no joke. Ask yourself if this tattoo is worth risking your health for. If it is, follow all the necessary safety protocols and know you are doing this at your own risk.
So let’s say you followed our advice and booked an appointment with a stick and poke tattoo artist. (Good on you!) What can you expect from the experience, and how will it be different from previous tattoos you might have gotten with an electric tattooing machine?
Yes, pain is a part of the tattooing experience. There’s no way to really get around it. Similar to a standard machine tattoo, stick and poke tattoo pain is different for everybody and will greatly depend on size, placement, sensitivity, design, and pain tolerance. Some people find it to be less painful than machine tattoos and others find it to be more painful. That being said, it may be more uncomfortable because it usually takes longer, and chances are pretty high you’ll experience more swelling and potentially even more bleeding than you would with a machine tattoo.
Okay, we hinted at it above: stick and poke tattoos can take a lot longer than machine ones. It’s only logical. If it takes a machine only one second to poke you 80 times, it certainly will take longer for a human being to get the same number of jabs in. That being said, there are some artists who are known for being pretty quick with a stick and poke tattoo, so if that’s something that’s important to you, you might want to do your research and specifically pick somebody who will be able to get you in and out of the tattoo chair more quickly.
Generally speaking, stick and poke tattoos will not cost as much as a machine tattoo does. This is because the tools required to create a stick and poke tattoo are cheaper than the ones you need for a machine tattoo. However, if you go to a well-known artist who is known for their stick and poke work, it’s actually possible that your tattoo might cost just the same or even more than a machine tattoo would. This is because these people are incredibly dedicated to their craft, have years of experience, take their work seriously, invest more time in creating their tattoos, and can offer a premium service that not everybody else can.
Just know that – like with any tattoo – cost should not be the deciding factor in where you go. Tattoos are permanent and if you can’t afford to go to a reputable artist at a safe studio, you’re better off waiting longer and saving up your money than you are taking the risk of going someplace sketchy or resorting to doing your tattoo yourself.
Stick and poke tattoo artists aren’t as common as machine artists, so you might have to do a bit more research to find one in your area. This isn’t the type of tattoo that you can just walk into your local studio with no appointment and expect to be able to get right then and there. In fact, you might have to do a bit of traveling to get to a good, safe stick and poke artist depending on the area where you live.
To help you start your research, here’s a list of some stick and poke artists around the world that are known for doing great work.
Just like with any other tattoo, you can get a stick and poke tattoo pretty much anywhere on your body that you want to. (Remember the Ta Moko tattoos that go exclusively on the head?). The main things you’ll want to consider are:
If pain is a major concern, we’d recommend avoiding the hands, feet, ears, ribs, knees, and neck. The least painful spots to get a stick and poke tattoo will probably be the thighs, biceps, triceps, and forearms.
Stick and poke tattoos are interesting because they are both highly trendy right now while also having a long, well-established history. But while stick and poke tattoos were once something people would get on their entire bodies, maybe in a more religious or tribal style, today, they tend to trend toward a more minimalistic look. Stick and poke tattoos that are popular in the 2020s tend to involve lots of lines and dots, black and grey instead of color, small sizes, and simple designs. One of the tattooing styles that is most commonly done as a stick and poke tattoo is the ignorant tattoo, which is characterized by ironic, dry, graphic, cartoon-like images without color.
You can find stick and poke tattoos in just about every imaginable design, though – especially in recent years – there are certain designs that are more common. Scrolling through stick and poke tattoos on Instagram or Pinterest, you’ll notice many designs and motifs like:
The reason why these types of designs are so common and tend to work well with stick and poke tattoos is that they are on the more simple side. Because stick and pokes tend to take longer (and many people are doing them at home), the simple tends to reign king. Not only that, but doing shading or using color is much more challenging when it comes to stick and poke, which is why you’ll tend to see black tattoos with no color or shading or shading being done only with lines or dots.
One of the most important things you can do to make sure that your stick and poke tattoo turns out well outside of choosing a reputable artist is to take proper care of it after the fact. Because all of the careful thought you’ve put into the perfect design and placement and artist will be for nothing if you don’t take good care of your tattoo and it heals all janky. The good news is that stick and poke tattoos actually tend to heal a bit more smoothly than machine tattoos, with fewer scabs and shorter healing time.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can be lazy about aftercare. You’ll still have to keep your tattoo covered for a few hours after you get it, wash it with a gentle, unscented, antibacterial soap, and moisturize with a tattoo cream one to three times a day for two to four weeks. Keep the tattoo completely out of the sun and avoid submerging it in bathtubs or bodies of water until it is completely healed. It’s also important to avoid it rubbing on clothing or jewelry, so depending on your placement you might have to change the type of clothes and accessories you wear for a couple of weeks during the healing process.
But taking care of your stick and poke tattoo doesn’t just stop once it’s healed a few weeks after you originally get it. You’re going to have to keep being mindful about taking care of it for the rest of your life if you want your tattoo to look its best for as long as possible with minimal aging, fading, and spreading. The absolute, number one, most important thing that you can do to protect your stick and poke tattoo from aging is to avoid it being exposed to the sun. This means ideally not letting the tattoo see the sun at all. Of course, that isn’t always feasible, so it’s also an option to wear sunscreen when you do want to let your tattoo see the light of day.
One of the best ways to decide what tattoo you want to get, regardless of the way it’s created, is to take inspiration by browsing over tattoos other people have. And, lucky for those who are thinking about getting a stick and poke, these days, there are so many people – celebrities included – who have stick and poke tattoos, so there is no shortage of inspiration. So to get your creative juices flowing, here are a few examples of celebrities who have stick and poke tattoos and what they are of.
Actress Bella Thorne showed off her smiley face stick and poke tattoo on Snapchat. Though she admits to having it done at a party (which was presumably not held at a tattoo studio), which we don’t recommend, this simple design is a good example of just how straightforward a stick and poke tattoo can be.
Singer Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine has stick and poke tattoos on her fingers, all of which were done by Ukrainian artist Stanislava Pinchuk, who is known for political art in many different mediums, not just tattooing. These tattoos are both representative of the type of designs people often choose for their stick and pokes, but also the type of placement, as the fingers are a very common one for stick and poke tattoos.
Singer Sam Smith also has a few stick and poke tattoos, like this one on their arm that reads “honesty.” Their stick and poke tattoos were also done by Stanislava Pinchuk.
Ke$ha is exactly the type of punkish musician who you’d expect to be into stick and poke tattoos and, indeed, she is. The stick and poke eye tattoo she has on the palm of her hand is both a common design and a common placement.
Actress and artist Jemima Kirke not only has stick and poke tattoos, but she’s also a stick and poke tattoo artist. This one she has is a bit larger and more intricate than some of the others on this list, with an arrow, crown, star, and abstract, vaguely-tribal pattern.
Lest you think that stick and poke tattoos are just for young females, here’s an example of one on actor Ryan Gosling, which he got on his knuckles in honor of his daughter with Eva Mendes, Esmeralda Amada Gosling.
While she has plenty of tattoos now, one of Miley Cyrus’s first tattoos was a stick and poke heart on her pinky finger, another placement and design that are very common in the stick and poke world.
Singer Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley Cyrus, also has some stick and poke tattoos adorning her fingers in some other common stick and poke design motifs: a sparkle, moon, sun, heart, and horseshoe. Looks like a love of stick and poke tattoos runs in the family.
Here you can see singer Rihanna’s traditional Maori Ta Moko tattoos on her hand, which are a series of lines and arrows in an intricate pattern all over the back of her hand and her fingers. This one is cool because it’s not exactly the type of stick and poke tattoo you usually see on celebrities, but it does reference the history of stick and poke tattooing and tattooing in general.
We hope that these examples and the rest of the information in this article can help you make smart, informed decisions about which stick and poke tattoo you want to get, if any.
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