The old school method of stick and poke tattoo application is making a comeback. Arm yourself with the information you need to make an informed decision whether the process is right for you.
Much like the modern machines used for tattooing, the original method for applying ink to the body used some form of sharpened implement to repeatedly puncture the skin and insert ink into the wound.
Despite the different shapes and nature of implements used—note the Maori chisel-like tool called uhi—this method of tattooing remained relatively unchanged until the 20th century. It was only at this point that electric machines became a popular alternative.
No longer relegated to the world of jail cells, college dorm rooms, and overseas vacations, the art of stick and poke has made a resurgence among professional tattoo artists. Given the speed and precision that is possible with machines, why would anyone choose to get a stick and poke tattoo?
This piece will examine the process of applying stick and poke process and offer reasons why the time-honored meticulous application technique is making a comeback in modern shops around the world.
Welcome to the world of stick and poke!
While at home tattoos are not generally a good idea, any discussion of stick and poke would be remiss without mentioning the humble origins of the practice in the West.
Thanks to the inherently primitive nature of the process, stick and poke tattoos are an option available to just about anyone in any situation, although tales of prison tattoos often come to mind when discussing this method.
A rudimentary stick and poke tool can be made using a sewing needle, some sort of adhesive or string, a handle (commonly a pencil) and some ink. All of these supplies can be found in the art room of a high school or any arts & crafts store.
Simply mount the needle to the handle, dip it in the ink and start poking. While this process is simple enough, it also accounts for many of the blotchy, faded designs that exist as well as countless horror stories of infection.
It should be noted that this is not a recommended practice, and for the sake of all involved, tattoos should be left to fully licensed professionals working in sanitized conditions.
Modern Stick and Poke Tattoo Equipment
The rough and ready approach is undoubtedly the origins of stick and poke tattoos, but is not an accurate depiction of the process as practiced by professionals: don’t expect to sit down for a hand poked tattoo at a shop and see an artist tying a sewing needle to a pencil and grabbing a biro from out of the top drawer.
In fact, there are a number of different stick and poke tools on the market. Coming in a variety shapes and designs, these tools have become popular with professional hand poke artists for a few reasons. The first and most important is the ability they provide for proper hygiene and sanitation. While the old school, homespun stick and poke tattoos are notorious for unsanitary conditions, this occurrence has more to do with the unprofessional setting rather than the process itself.
These new tools are most commonly metal, and they allow artists to practice all the proper hygiene and sanitation practices that meet with industry standards. These tools are also interesting because they allow the artist to switch out different needles, broadening the spectrum on what type of designs are possible with hand poked tattoos.
A Professional Resurgence
Given the speed and accuracy of modern machines, why would anyone choose to apply tattoos by hand?
While there is no doubt that many professional tattoo artists have a complex relationship with hand poked tattoos, opinions on the practice are starting to soften. More artists are beginning to view the hand poked tattoo as less of a process born out of necessity in a jail cell, and more as legitimate aspect of traditional tattoo application.
There are many people in the industry today that see hand poked tattoos as a link in an unbroken chain that connects them to a unique human tradition that dates back thousands of years.
Some professional artists simply prefer the stick and poke tattoo process over etching designs with a machine, even likening the meticulous nature of applying thousands of individual pokes to a form of meditation. This sentiment is echoed by many clients who choose this process instead of machine application. According to Tiffani Walton of SlowPoke Ink:
“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.”
Other stick and poke devotees believe the art transcends any pain you may experience. U.S Airforce Senior Airman Daniel Brewer said of his stick and poke ink experience at a convention in Luxemburg:
“The artist for the stick-and-poke would create a preliminary line, dip the blade in ink and basically cut your flesh with it…There was one big, buff dude with a Mohawk in front of me receiving a stick-and-poke; he was just crying and crying on stage as he’s getting the tattoo done. There was a guy right in front of me, waiting next in line and he bolted once he saw that guy cry. When they came to me, they asked if I was sure to continue and I told them I could hang; I’m still getting that tattoo.”
While this is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, for some people, a Zen-like experience is a great environment to receive a tattoo.
Another factor affecting the growing popularity of this approach to tattoos is the surprising number of celebrities who have jumped on board the stick and poke train. From Grimes, applying her own, at home designs, to superstar Rihanna and her traditional Maori ta-moko on her hand, it seems that hand poked designs are all the rage.
So, you want a stick and poke tattoo? Factors to Consider
Now that we have a better understanding of what stick and poke tattoos are and why they have gained popularity in recent years, let’s take a look at a few factors that will help determine if this process is right for you.
While the process of implanting ink into the skin is essentially the same for hand poked and machine applied tattoos, each method has its own strengths and weaknesses. The stick and poke etching approach is best suited for small ink given its meticulous process. Hand poking is perfect for inking intricate design details.
Many artists that performing hand poked tattoos are happy to work with clients and if a design is outside the realm of what is possible with this approach, they will either rework a concept or pass them on to an artist who uses a machine and is better suited for the piece.
Script work, full color, and hyper realism are not suited for stick and poke, and an artist will let the client know this.
Another factor that must be considered is time. Stick and poke pieces take longer than machine pieces…much longer. A longer amount of time is required with this approach, which means this method may not suit those not wanting to sit in a chair for hours on end.
The time consuming nature of the process also means that most artists aren’t willing to apply massive tattoos like sleeves or back pieces using this approach, and will most likely steer a prospective client to an artist that uses a machine for this type of work.
Price is a factor that shapes decisions, and tattoos are no different. Most professional hand poke artists charge similar hourly rates for work as artists that use machines, however, this can be a bit misleading, given the difference in what can be accomplished in the same time frame. Using a machine, an artist may be able to finish a design in thirty minutes that would take over an hour to complete by hand.
As with every tattoo, make sure before committing to the work that you have an accurate understanding of the time it will likely take and the likely cost to get it done.
The stigma of dirty needles and infected tattoos surrounding the hand poke method is no secret, although this correlation has more to do with the origins of the practice than with any specific element of the process.
When approached with the same concern for hygiene and safety as would be given to any other tattoo, the hand poking process can be just as sanitary as when receiving a tattoo with a machine. Any legitimate, licensed and bonded tattoo studio that provides hand poke tattoos will conform to the industry standards regarding hygiene and sterilization.
When applying a tattoo with a machine, the artist drags the needles over the skin; when applying a hand poked tattoo each poke delivers the ink below the skin. This more precise method often results in less irritation and quicker healing times. It’s worth noting that everyone’s bodies are different – this should be considered a generalization and not a hard and fast rule.
Some individuals that have gotten both machine and stick and poke tattoos have noted that stick and poke hurt less. While there may be some truth to this, they should not be viewed as a cure-all pain free alternative to the current professional application.
Different Pokes for Different Folks
When investigating hand poked tattoos to see if they are right for you, the best thing is to understand is that, though similar to machine applied tattoos, the process has some marked differences that make it better suited for certain people and their sensibilities. Equal but different is a good way to look at it. While not necessarily for everyone, this old school approach is perfect for patient people that like simple designs and want to feel a bit more of a connection to the ancient practice of tattooing.
Interested in popular tattoo styles that can make use of traditional stick and poke techniques when used by talented professionals? Click in the links below for some awesome tribal and dotwork tattoo galleries: