Stick-and-poke tattoos, also called hand-poked or machine-free tattoos, tend to have a punk, DIY vibe associated with them due to their modern origins in the underground culture scene. Designs that are created this way tend to be thought of as basic, minimal designs, but they can range in complexity from a simple dot to a deeply detailed, intricate piece. Regardless of how they look, stick-and-poke tattoos come with the pride of having a more intimate, rudimentary feel.
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In general, a major part of tattooing is the prevention of infection and disease—that’s why sterilization is so important when getting inked. Unfortunately, the imagery of “stick-and-poke” may make you think that this kind of tattoo is unsafe or haphazard. The truth is that many professional tattoo artists are using sterile equipment in clean, safe shops and proving that the method can be just as beautiful, well done, and secure as a machine-done tattoo.
What Are Stick-and-Poke Tattoos?
Stick-and-poke tattoos are a form of non-electric tattooing—that is to say, there’s no tattoo machine used. Instead, ink is applied to the skin by hand by attaching a needle to a rod-like contraption, much like a pencil and thread (professionals use a tattoo-grade needle) to create an analog tattoo machine.
Basically, stick-and-pokes are exactly what they sound like; once the needle is secure, the design is created by dipping it into ink and then poking it into the skin dot by dot.
The hand-poke process originated from traditional forms of non-electric tattooing across cultures that were generally used in connection to community or religion; the single needle and ink process dates back as far as ancient Egypt as mummies were found to have intricate tattoos on their arms, shoulders, and abdomen. The modern stick-and poke-movement, however, is attributed to the skate and punk subculture of the 1970s, where using sewing needles and India ink to DIY a tattoo was popular.
Where to Get a Stick-and-Poke Tattoo
The most important thing to know about getting a stick-and-poke is to be sure you find a reputable artist to ensure that high-quality, sterile tools and ink are used. People get stick-and-pokes for any number of reasons—the aesthetic, a deeper connection to the tattoo, or they just prefer it to a tattoo done with a gun—but the pursuit of a bad tattoo is never one. If you ever see someone using a sewing needle or the space isn’t clean, don’t get tatted there. "Please never get a stick-and-poke tattoo in a friend's kitchen, or underground so-called private studios. It is still a serious procedure," says tattoo artist Burak Noire, owner of Fleur Noire Tatoo.
Will It Hurt?
Just like a machine tattoo, stick-and-pokes hurt differently for everyone depending on placement, design, and pain tolerance. I personally have two stick-and-poke tattoos on my inner ankles. While the first one hurt, the second one was less painful than some of the machine-done tattoos on my arm. Some people think the pain isn’t as bad as machine tattooing; others find it to be worse. It’s all about whether you prefer one needle moving moderately slowly into the skin or a bunch of needles moving quickly at once—it’s completely dependent on your own tolerance.
How Long Does It Last?
A common misconception is that the quality of stick-and-pokes don’t last as long as a machine-done tattoo; however, that’s not entirely correct. The truth of the matter is that if your stick-and-poke starts to fade or just generally diminishes in quality, the person you went to was perhaps inexperienced and/or didn’t use the proper procedures. Tattooing is, at its core, the same idea regardless of the method: You’re inserting a needle with ink into your skin over and over again to create a design. But the trickiest part for any hand-poke artist is pushing the needle into the skin just deep enough for the ink to take. If it’s too deep, you’ll get a blowout, which means all the lines blur together and feather out. If it’s not deep enough, the ink won’t stay at all. As long as the artist uses safe, clean tools and knows what they’re doing, your tattoo will last like any other design.
Safe Stick-and-Poke Tattoos
As tattoo artist Yoyo Lee notes, stick-and-pokes are generally as safe as a machine tattoo, if done correctly—in some cases, they are actually even easier to take care of: "The healing process is usually shorter and more comfortable, because there's no intense itchiness."
That being said, stick-and-pokes need to be approached similarly to any other body art. By that, we mean seek a professional. "As long as the tattoo procedure performs in a hygienic environment with single-use disposable instruments, professional tattoo equipment, and a trained and licensed artist, stick-and-poke tattoos are safe," says Noire. A DIY stick-and-poke could mean pain, infection, and bad art that will be on your skin forever.
Lee concurs, saying: "Hygiene is everything. That means sterile tools, single usage needles, gloves, a sanitized workplace and your tattoo artist should have all the necessary certificates and knowledge in cross contamination."
Stick-and-poke aftercare is generally the same as aftercare for a machine-done tattoo, but hand-poked ink may not scab as much and likely won’t take as long to heal if done properly. Your artist will most likely wrap your tattoo once it’s done, but if they don’t (or you didn’t heed our advice and went to an amateur), make sure the fresh tattoo is covered for at least more than two hours.
"Even though the technique is different, the main purpose of the aftercare is still taking care of the reaction of skin after ink and needle penetration," says Noire. "You should keep the bandage on the period of the time your artist recommends (three to four hours or three to four days, depending on the type of the bandage)."
Once the wrap is taken off, the ink should be washed with a gentle, unscented cleanser and moisturized with a tattoo-specific lotion or Aquaphor. "After the bandage is off, you can use any petroleum free, natural and organic tattoo ointment or coconut oil about three to five times a day for the next two weeks," Noire says. Be sure to keep the tattoo out of the sun and don’t submerge it in water during its healing period.
Stick-and-pokes are a great way to explore new ways of tattooing and gain a sense of aesthetic pride along the way. You may even end up preferring the process to machine-done tattoos.
Watson T. Intricate animal and flower tattoos found on Egyptian mummy. Nature. 2016;533(7602):155. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19864