Stick and poke tattoos have a DIY, hardcore punk, do it while you’re drunk with a buddy and a sewing needle reputation, but that’s not entirely true. In fact, attitude toward this “rudimentary” approach to tattooing are changing because of the efforts of tattooists who practice hand-poked tattooing. One look at portfolios of artists like Tati Compton, Sarah Lu, Grace Neutral, Bregs, and many others, and you’ll see that stick and poke tattoos can be just as impressive as those made by machines. The fact of the matter is that it’s the skill of the tattooist and not the tools they use that largely defines the quality of their work. Here are some of the myths about hand-poked tattoos and why they don’t always hold up under scrutiny.
MYTH: Stick and poke tattoos give people diseases and infections.
FACTS: Let’s address the elephant in the room: one of the biggest issues relating to tattoos, period, is the prevention of infection and disease. Because many stick and poke tattoos are frequently done by untrained individuals using homemade equipment, contracting a bloodborne pathogen or developing a serious infection is a very real possibility. However, if the appropriate steps are taken to avoid this — sterilized equipment and proper aftercare — there is really no reason that a hand-poked piece runs a higher risk than one done by a machine. This is why it’s so important to get work done by trained professionals, artists who know how to combat health concerns like hepatitis B and staph.
MYTH: Stick and poke tattoos will never look as good as ones done by machine.
FACTS: It’s true, technological advancements have led to tattoo machines that enhance what tattooists are capable of, first and foremost allowing them to create body art at a faster pace. That doesn’t, however, mean that stick and poke tattoos can't look as good if not better than those made by a coil or rotary rig. The truth is that, in the right hands, a piece plotted out by a stick with a small set of needles at its tip can look just as striking as a massive machine-made composition across a person’s back or chest. It really just depends on the eye of the beholder. Hand-poked tattoos tend to have a more rudimentary aesthetic, but they have artistic merit, especially for fans of minimalist work with a DIY spirit.
MYTH: You can only make little hand-poked pieces, not big, detailed ones.
FACTS: One glance at someone like Jenna Bouma’s body of work blows this widespread misconception right out of the water. Yes, a large-scale hand-poked tattoo takes a considerably longer time to complete than one done using a machine, but, as her body art demonstrates, it’s more than possible. Just get ready to lay on the table for a considerable amount of time if you want a stick and poke back-piece or sleeve.
MYTH: Stick and poke tattoos will look bad after a couple of years, if not sooner.
FACTS: If a hand-poked tattoo doesn’t hold up over time, that’s because it was poorly done (or poorly taken care of, but that's a whole other matter). No matter what kind of instrument the artist uses to insert ink into the skin, if they don’t do it correctly, either pushing the needles in too deep or not deep enough, the results won’t be ideal. If too shallow, the ink simply won’t hold, while if pushed in too far, it can become unsightly, resulting in what is known as a blowout, where the lines and shading blend together into a blurry mess. It takes someone who knows they’re doing to hit the sweet spot that makes lines and shading hold for entire lifetimes.
MYTH: Stick and poke tattoos are trashy.
FACTS: This is the assumption that irks us the most, not only because it’s classist as fuck but also because it often simply isn’t true. Artists who choose to use this method generally do so because they value the aesthetic that it produces, and they also tend to refine their take on the style until their work stands out as one of a kind, which is anything but trashy.
All things considered, you shouldn’t ever go to a kitchen magician with a machine or a pincushion full of needles. Regardless of the difference in equipment, getting back-alley body art always presents the risk of disease, infection, and poor quality, but hand-poked tattoos get slapped with a bad rep. A stick and poke should be more about appreciating the aesthetic than just coming by an affordable tattoo. That’s why we suggest that you commission one of the artists featured here to design your next piece if you have your heart set on one.