In the midst of quarantine, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed when an odd caption caught my eye. “I got older and became a scallionion.” Curious, I clicked on the profile to find other similar posts. “When life gives you a lemon, make a fucking lemonade and kill them all,” read another.
The tattoo artist Han, based in Seoul, pairs each of her tattoos with whimsical quotes, the two mentioned referring to a scallion-onion and lemonade-grenade, respectively. Han specializes in hand poke tattoos, a form that has found a recent surge of interest due to the closure of tattoo parlours during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the increase in the number of unsafe tattoo practices at home has been addressed by various media as well. To better understand the art, I met with Han to ask about what makes hand poke tattoos so special.
“The biggest thing for me would be the texture. Hand poke tattoos have a certain, almost sticker-like texture that’s distinguishable from machine tattoos,” she explains. “Compared to working with a machine, hand-poking might also take more time.” Though hand poke tattoos have a reputation for being painless, Han admits that it may still cause some pain depending on the person.
“You have to watch for the tip,” she says, demonstrating when to switch between needles of different sizes for color packing and lining. Han adds that hand poke needles can be quite brittle; an artist needs months of practice before getting it just right. Like every tattoo artist, Han also emphasizes the importance of proper hygiene as she shares how she learned about tattoo for the first time.
Years ago, while attending school in the US, Han noticed that her peers were attempting to tattoo themselves in their dorms. “It was an arts school and there was a culture among the students to hand poke yourself, like tattooing your artistic signature,” she fondly reminisces. “I was hoping to transfer my art to something tangible and realized that tattoos would do the job.”
Upon deciding to pursue tattooing, Han quit school and began her practice with machine tattoos. She switched soon after, however, because she believed her personality is better suited for hand poke. “There are numerous variables when working with machines. You can’t fully control all the inner workings of a machine and that stressed me out.” Han says. As someone who demands complete control over her craft, Han observes that using just her hands also helps her to stay focused. “I just prefer it that way.”
Han describes her tattoos as “cute and edgy,” and hopes to create art that is witty and appreciated by everyone. “I try to come up with two completely unrelated words during the day. Then, before I go to bed, I am hit with new ideas connecting these two independent words together.” Naturally, Han’s Instagram—fittingly named Hey Hey Diary—serves as a journal of her bedtime puns.
Along with her wordplay, her designs are distinguished by the characters’ smiles, which accentuates the goofiness in her works. This is all thought-out, of course, as Han believes in the importance of sharing a laugh, especially during tough times. “I see my art essentially as fun stickers that can be printed everywhere like on t-shirts or even made into figurines. It’s cool to see how the hand poke texture allows me to stick my art on skin,” she says.
As soon as COVID-19 winds down, Han hopes to return to her guest trips around the world—her work in Australia got cut short earlier this year due to the pandemic. “I grew up around the world moving from one place to another and I want to keep living like so. It feels like I’m taking big risks, but I’m also excited about what this decision might lead me to,” she explains. Until then, however, Han plans to spend this involuntary vacation at home like everyone else and hopefully, coming up with more fun ideas.