Video by Jordan Frakes
Today’s technology gives people access to instructions for at-home projects of all types, including how to use a sewing kit to make real, permanent — but possibly dangerous — tattoos.
A 2012 Harris Interactive survey found that one in five adults have a tattoo in the U.S., a number that has risen in the past decade. Stick ‘n’ poke tattooing — a do-it-yourself method — is a trend students are experimenting with.
A sewing needle is attached to a pen or pencil, wrapped in thread and then dipped into India ink. Each individual dot used to make the tattoo is created by repeatedly poking the needle into the skin, requiring multiple tracings over the image until it is dark enough to show up.
Abigail Lynch, a photography junior, was at first hesitant when a friend offered to tattoo her by hand two years ago. However, she now has three stick ‘n’ poke tattoos and even learned to do the technique herself.
“They’re just something fun and free of cost,” Lynch said. “It’s nice because there’s no preparation before and you don’t need an appointment or anything.”
Lynch said most people get small tattoos because of the precision required to make them and the pain caused by this technique. Her first was a modest cross on the side of her finger, which took about 15 minutes to complete.
The two on her foot, a cactus and the words “search and destroy,” took about twice as long because Lynch needed breaks throughout the process.
Lynch added that do-it-yourself tattoos have been around forever, allowing various cultures to express themselves artistically.
“At first, I thought it was really sketchy because I thought it was something people only did in jail,” she said. “But it’s actually how they originally did tattoos in Native American cultures and some ancient cultures … and as long as you keep everything sanitary, it’s safe.”
Do-it-yourself tattooing is especially popular in the punk scene, where people gather together at each other’s houses for “stick ‘n’ poke parties,” she added.
“I’ve been to a couple,” Lynch said. “It’s pretty fun, there’s usually about 15 people that go and two or three people give tattoos. … I have some friends that are really amazing at it. It’s just something fun and cool to do with friends.”
Giving stick ‘n’ poke tattoos is a practice that can take a while to get used to, especially for those with weak stomachs, Lynch said.
“It still grosses me out a little with all of the blood,” she added. “People usually bleed a lot more with stick ‘n’ poke than in a shop because in a shop it is just more controlled, and you usually don’t really bleed. But these just pool out blood.”
Lynch said she takes several safety measures when giving the tattoos in order to prevent infection or blood-related diseases.
“I use a new needle every time and I’m really careful about keeping everything sanitary,” Lynch said. “I don’t really think it’s dangerous, but I wouldn’t let just anyone stick ‘n’ poke me. … It kind of goes by your own judgment of who the person is.”
Kara Philp, a journalism senior, said that when a friend gave her a stick ‘n’ poke tattoo in eighth grade, she thought of it as a “jumping off point.”
“It was something I used as an experiment when I was younger and didn’t have a lot of other options for getting tattoos,” Philp said.
Although subtle, Philp said the three black dots on her left hand — standing for the phrase “mi vida loca,” or “my crazy life” — bring back memories every time she looks at them. Philp added that the tattoo is not gang-related.
“It’s become a part of who I am,” Philp said. “Looking at all the things I do, it’s totally in line with how I am now, and it makes for a great story. That’s really what life is all about.”
She feels nostalgic with stick ‘n’ poke making a comeback, she added. Philp compared it to something like skinny jeans or cassette tapes coming back into style years after its time.
However, Philp also said she probably would not get another stick ‘n’ poke tattoo today because of concerns and doubts about cleanliness, but she thinks everyone should take the chance to youthfully experiment once and a while.
“I think if someone wants to do it, then do it,” Philp said. “A tattoo shop would be the best way to go, but (stick ‘n’ poke tattoos) do make for some good memories.”
A tattoo artist at Golden Rule Tattoo at 120 E. Roosevelt St., had a slightly different take on stick ‘n’ poke tattooing.
“Stick ‘n’ poke is basically taking a needle and some pigment to make a shitty tattoo on one of your friends,” Alex Empty said. “That’s actually what my first real tattoo was covering up.”
Empty added that without the proper equipment and controlled environment, “it’s no different than sharing needles to shoot drugs.”
“It’s something completely stupid and unsafe because there is no way to properly sterilize the needle,” Empty said. “When we do tattoos, we use pre-sterilized needles and everything is sanitary.”
When Empty received a stick ‘n’ poke tattoo long before he became a tattoo artist, he said the friend who tattooed him had no idea how the method really worked.
“That’s usually how it goes,” Empty said. “Your friend is like ‘do a tattoo, man,’ then you go grab your mom’s sewing kit or something. It’s just one of the stupid things kids do.”
For people considering using the stick ‘n’ poke method, Empty suggests not doing it and going to a tattoo shop.
“You could make some dumb marks on yourself that could give you blood-borne pathogens, or you could come to us and get a real tattoo,” Empty added.
Jason Anthony, another tattoo artist at Golden Rule Tattoo, said stick ‘n’ poke seems to be more commonly used by kids who “just want to be cool.”
“Tattoos in general are getting more popular, and people noticed that there’s this other kind of tattooing … so (stick ‘n’ poke) has definitely gotten more recognition lately,” Anthony said. “It’s kids’ way of giving the middle finger to some organization … whatever organization they think that is.”
Jason Begay, a tattoo artist at 27 Tattoo Studio at 600 N. Fourth St., said people use the stick ‘n’ poke method because they get bored in their apartments and just “decide to poke each other with needles.”
He’s heard of people who got staph infections and had to go to doctors to get antibiotics.
“It’s not the safest or by any means the best route to take,” Begay said.
Begay advises people to do their homework before considering stick ‘n’ poke tattooing.
“Anybody who wants to get a tattoo or body modification of any kind needs to research the risks … and find a tattoo shop that cares about their work and their environment,” Begay said.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Kara Philp previously worked for the Downtown Devil as a contributing reporter. She was not involved in reporting of this article.
Clarification: April 18, 2012
This article has been updated to reflect that Kara Philp’s tattoo of “mi vida loca” does not have a gang affiliation.