The third grade days of doodling a smiley face on a friend’s arm with a pen are over. As the years pass, do-it-yourself sketches on body parts have become more and more permanent.
Commonly performed casually by a friend on a living room couch, stick and poke tattoos are done by injecting a needle in and out of the skin enough times to make a straight line that transforms into a shape, creating a DIY tattoo. The choice of tools is entirely up to the tattoo artist. One common choice among stick and pokers is a sewing needle stuck into the eraser of a pencil.
“What [I] do is get a pencil and wrap string around it and poke the needle into the eraser so it absorbs the ink,” sociology senior Holland Bool said.
Although she has only done a few, Bool’s history of stick and pokes dates back to a “vision quest” she experienced with her high school when she was 18 years old at Mono Lake, California.
“I had lost three people in my life recently and felt like I just needed to do something,” Bool said. “So I took a pine needle and put it in pen ink and put three dots in my skin.”
For some, stick and pokes are a method of illustrating a personal story on their body. Although it began as a personal sentiment for Bool, she now shares her hobby with a few of her friends who have her art on their bodies.
Other stick and pokers began their hobby as an outlet for art and creative expression. While some choose sewing needles, others opt for buying a stick and poke kit, which contains all the necessary tools.
For agricultural and environmental plant sciences sophomore Shannon Kerner, the hobby sprung from a bad tattoo experience her freshman year at Cal Poly. As a result, Kerner has given about 40 stick and pokes within a year, etching minimalistic designs like snakes, flowers and other images of nature.
“Me and my friends wanted more tattoos, but didn’t want to pay $80 minimum when I could do it for free in 20 minutes,” Kerner said.
Due to the flexibility of the price of stick and pokes, the range of professionalism is entirely up to the giver and receiver of the tattoo.
“I honestly wasn’t very careful when I gave them to my friends because the placement is usually on their butts,” Bool said.
A hobby for most, stick and pokes are a cheap way to have ink on your body forever — potentially, at least. Some last longer than others, as the permanency of the stick and poke depends on the depth of the needle in the skin.
When receiving a stick and poke, one should not assume it will look exactly like the ones found on Tumblr or Pinterest, according to environmental management and protection junior Sarah Orth.
“I stick and poked my roommate a little sun and it’s literally gone, and it was my favorite one,” Orth said.
Since the beginning of her stick and poke journey a few months ago, Orth has given 16 tattoos to friends, roommates and acquaintances.
“I just really loved getting a tattoo and it made me feel like I could do anything,” Orth said. “It seemed like a good way to make money doing the art I like to do.”
Trial and error
The art of stick and pokes is a trial-and-error process, and just like any other hobby, it takes time and patience. Even the smallest designs can take up to two hours.
“I did it for free in the beginning, but now I charge people because it takes a lot of time,” Kerner said.
Factors such as the color and thickness of skin can determine the willingness of the skin to absorb the ink. For this reason, many novice stick and pokers have a tough time making the tattoo permanent.
Those with the steadiest of hands are the ones who have practiced the art for years. Two professional stick and poke tattoo artists from Tradition Tattoo explained their relationship and journey with the profession.
“The biggest misconception is that it is easy,” tattoo artist Matt Southwood said. “People think they can get a safety pin or buy some needles from Amazon and do a good stick and poke tattoo, but it’s actually probably the hardest form of tattooing there is.”
Just like with any other art form, there is a lot to learn when handling a needle and ink, which is why most tattoo shops require at least a year of apprenticeship. With its beginning in Europe, the history of stick and pokes reaches far beyond the recent trend seen today.
“I think tattooing and piercing is such a huge part of our culture throughout all of time and I think we are slowly rediscovering it and taking it back,” Southwood said.
The internet plays a large role in this rediscovery. Videos on YouTube and images of DIY tattoos serve as inspiration for aspiring tattoo artists or people who want a spark of creativity.
There is also something more personal that comes with this newly popularized hobby. In contrast to a tattoo machine gun, hand-poked tattoos break the boundary between the artist and the receiver of the tattoo.
“The feeling is different with the hand poke,” Naualli Ñu Savi of Traditional Tattoo said. “The connection with the people is different than with a machine.”