The Rise of Stick and Poke Tattooing

By Erin Christie and Mica Kendall

Personal anecdotes provided by Erin Christie

The stylistic trend of “Do it Yourself” art has extended its notoriety within millennial culture from not only basement DIY music to DIY pinterest craft making. In the same vein as DIY, the art of tattooing isn’t nearly a new concept, let alone one that’ll be stopping anytime soon. One thing that might be evolving, though, is the mass production of the practice, the “DIY-ness” of it, and how accessible it is for just about anyone with the means to sterilize a needle and a pot of ink to accomplish their own makeshift career. This subset of DIY, referred to as “stick and pokes tattooing” due to the nature in which they are crafted-- with a needle being used to repeatedly poke ink into the skin-- is, as Vogue describes, “the new septum piercings,” with stick and poke tattoos becoming increasingly preferred over the traditional tattoo gun in tattoo parlors.

When I first started getting tattoos, myself, I was extremely intimidated by the prospect of going into a tattoo parlor, and  the prices that were oftentimes attached to the service. Of course, you’re paying an artist to do their job, and that requires some sort of payout in exchange, but for a college student, the idea of wanting art on your body and being able to afford it is a whole different story. Despite this, I was determined to save up with the sole intention of ink.

When I got my second tattoo, I did so on an absolute whim of spontaneity. Hidden in a small alcove attached to a Brooklyn shop that sold anything from drug paraphernalia to sex toys laid “Fantasy Party Tattoo,” also known as two professional artists sitting at a countertop, tattoo guns in hand. Sat atop a teeny stool, I watched the tattoo artist (whose name I can’t even remember) drag the single needle-clad gun across my inner forearm and winced at the sting. The process, in entirety, was quick, easy, and unapologetic—simply an exchange of payment for a lifelong piece of artwork.

At least in my personal experience, getting stick and poke tattoos has been a practice that has a completely different energy.  

In a GQ article entitled “The Stylish Rise of Stick and Poke Tattoos,” writer Liza Corsillo says, “What were once known as ‘jail tattoos’ have become exceedingly popular among young creative types with a different view of tattooing.” Stick and poke has a strong emphasis on the intimacy behind the craft: as opposed to a tattoo gun, hand-poking is done by just that: by hand, with each “poke” of ink into the skin packed with meaning.  

From an artist and client perspective, it is important to note the financial benefits of stick and poking: not only are the materials much cheaper and accessible, but the work itself typically is, too. Not only are stick and pokes a cheaper alternative to the common $100 minimum at tattoo parlors, but the appeal in stick and pokes are centered around the intimate and more personalized experience between one and the stick and poke artist. Stick and poke tattoos are traditionally given in the artist’s own personal space, like their apartments or art studios. Thus, not only are you obtaining a personalized experience and getting a one of a kind, hand-drawn stick and poke design, but your experience is also much more laid back and personal considering the atmosphere (as opposed to the hectic, customer-ridden experience that comes with going to a tattoo parlor).

When I met Joo (jpcff on Instagram), I immediately felt an aura of warmth, despite how freezing it had been outside at the time. It was November, and I was visiting Joo with the intention of getting my first ever stick and poke, my third tattoo in total.  

Joo’s Somerville space was decorated with an assortment of flash sheets that I had seen on their Instagram, as well as other various sketches and tattoo designs. Apart from a traditional studio space, I felt at ease in Joo’s small bedroom-turned-tattoo parlor. During the session, we talked about everything from their plans to eventually branch out and start their own studio in New York City to the trials that I experience at my job at Urban Outfitters, all whilst Ariana Grande’s then newest, “Thank U, Next” played softly in the background.

As opposed to my personal past experiences, which felt much more business-like and formal, this was an entirely different experience, one that felt more like a meeting of two friends, each connected by art and the practice of inking homemade tattoos.

Aside from professional stick and poke artists, the art of stick and poke is very much a college milestone, in a way, especially within the Boston scene. Avery Kelly (@friendsround), a Northeastern Sophomore from Portland, Oregon recalls her stick and poke beginnings fondly, but not without cringing at her past self:

“So, I started because I was fifteen and wanted a tattoo for the 1975 (lol), but after realizing how accessible and expressive it is, started actually getting into it,” she said.  “I really love the community that comes with it; it’s probably why I started expanding my pokes to people other than my friends and started asking for payment.”

As she noted, a friend, Dylan (@violentwire), became a kind of mentor in terms of hand-poking when they met this past summer. They traded tattoos and he taught her a lot about technique and the community as a whole. “I love being able to trade art with people and decorate others as well as myself, and I see it as a sort of permanent jewelry,” Kelly said.

Throughout her time with the craft, she recalls her most memorable tattoo appointments:

“As for people I’ve poked, the most memorable is definitely Hinds!! The girls were on tour in the US, and their photographer posted on their story that they were looking for tour tats. I reached out, and we met up at the venue before the show and I gave Carlotta, Amber, their photog Neelam, and Emmett from Goodbye Honolulu lil tour mementos. They were super inviting and open and made me feel like my art was a valid form of tattooing!”

Though, the stick and poke tattoo process is more tedious and time consuming compared to the “one and done” technique of using a tattoo gun, the results are more individualized and meaningful. In essence, if you intend to support independent artists, stick and poke tattoos are a great alternative in terms of your ink needs, especially if you want to help artists get their start in the tattooing industry. What many people don’t realize is just how communal the art of stick and poking is: it’s not isolated to a specific area of the world, nor is it exclusive in any way, shape or form: it’s available to anyone who’s interested, and is loved by all who either poke themselves (like Avery and Joo) or enjoy receiving them (like myself).

A note for aspiring stick and poke artists: If you are an artist yourself, many companies offer stick and poke starter kits which are available to order online (i.e. at Prices range from $44 to $68 a kit, but the kit comes with everything essential to conducting your own stick and poke tattoo.