Stick ‘n’ poke tattooing becomes increasingly popular among students

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

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.


  1. Anyone doing this must be mad, yes its cheap but what are the health risks??? If you really want a tattoo save up and get one done by a professional, after all it will be value for money because you’ll have it for life

  2. Ahhhh! Needles! Give me your money instead, it’s DANGEROUS if you don’t!!
    You can absolutely sterilize sewing needles. Alcohol soak + fire. Don’t dip directly into your india ink bottle, pour a little out into a sterilized container- like a boiled glass dish. Aftercare is often overlooked, that’s risky- depending on the size, keep it covered, non-scented moisturized, and CLEAN.
    Don’t be scared to do shit, folks. Life is risk, whether it’s in a Nice Big Clean Expensive Facility or with friends in your living room.

  3. Why is the video one big advertisement for this tattoo shop when the article is about stick-n-pokes…? (or, the first half is, anyway. The second half is more of a scare essay/advert for tattoo shops.)

  4. The issue at hand is not the technique but the type of ink you use…I mean doing stick n’ poke is kind of lame already, (it’s known as something done largely by bored teenagers and has lost its luster for true enthusiasts) and so many of these kids just break open a Bic pen and use the ink. It looks terrible after a few years. Maybe one stick n’ poke tattoo as a novelty is kind of interesting, but relying on the method for more than one tattoo because it’s free/easy is really tacky. As someone with large tattoos on visible parts of my body and a good amount of education on the subject, I say either stick with a reputable artist or, if you absolutely MUST poke yourself, invest in approved stick tattoo ink/tools on a specialty website. They really aren’t that expensive and it’s worth knowing that you have a slightly smaller chance of gangrene.

  5. Perspective on stick n’ pokes by a proud wearer of stick n’ poke tattoos:

    Stick n’ pokes can be completely sanitary and a wonderful way of receiving ink. I have a total of 9 stick n’ pokes and I’m proud of each one.
    One of the common misconceptions is the lack of sterility… if done properly by someone well versed in stick n’ pokes. All 9 of my stick n’ pokes were done primarily with professional tattoo needles right out of the package – sanitary. As the tattooing was taking place, the skin was consistently being wiped down with either isopropyl alcohol or everclear – strong enough to kill bacteria. Some of the works, a sewing needle was used for fine details… this sewing needle was sterilized by soaking in alcohol after being boiled (I process that I watched with my own eyes). The tattoos look good with minor flaws, but flaws that provide character and make it as though each piece is unique in its own right. Nobody will have exactly the same markings. These tattoos were done with actual tattoo ink, not india ink, not Bic pen ink, but the same tattoo ink that the shop uses.

    Also, through this process, I’ve felt closer to my ancestors and to the primitive nature of humanity. I’ve avoided this culture’s necessity for petroleum (minus what petroleum is in the ink) and the need for using electricity.

    I not only wear my 9 stick n’ pokes but also have two pieces that were done at a shop, one that’s rather large. I’m most proud of the stick n’ pokes though. They were done by friends that I’m close to, in ways that I approve of – environmental friendliness… For all future tattoos, the small ones that don’t require much detail – I will always go for stick n’ poke before going to a shop.

  6. Tattoo artist of course are going to bash this method of tattooing because they want money first of all. The guy who you interviewed who claimed its like doing drugs and sharing needles, it’s really not. You can buy tattooing needles that are ore sterilized over the Internet, a shit load of them actually. If you know what you’re doing they aren’t bad at all. Tattoo artist want money. Lets say you want a letter G on your ankle or wrist or wherever, most shops have a minimum price, so you’ll wind up paying 40-50 bucks for just the letter G. I have “professionally” done tattoos, but the stick and pokes I do on myself. Hold much more value than the ones I got done by egotistical come-stroke-my-ego I-know-everything tattoo artist. If you are being clean about it, don’t worry about it…. Just use common sense. Tattoo artist are always going to bash stick and pokes simply becaus they think if you’re not paying one of them for it, it’s going to kill you. Piss off lol

  7. Gone are the days when people use to get themselves inked to follow to be a part of the mainstream fashion; now people wear tattoos that reflect their passion and inner attitudes. TV shows such as Miami Ink have changed the way people used to look at tattoos. With the top celebrities flashing their ink in public, tattoos have become a rage across people of all ages. No wonder then why the demand for tattoo designs and tattoo pictures has skyrocketed in the past few years. Especially, tattoos designs such as Tribal tattoos, cross tattoos and Star tattoos are becoming more and more sought-after across the tattoo design industry.”

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  8. This staph infection is deadly and can and does kill humans and animals. In fact, this very thing happened to Jill Moss’ most beloved white Samoyed, Bella. Jill lost Bella to this staph infection less than a year ago. It prompted Jill to take serious action and bring the knowledge of this deadly strain of bacteria to the world so that other pet owners and people would not have to suffer the loss she has. Jill has instituted the Bella Moss Foundation. ”

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  9. Datura and SimWebb, you both are incredibly uneducated to be making such statements.

    “Sterile” is not a word to be thrown around lightly.

    Please take a class in Blood-borne Pathogens Training before you bother to remark on the safety any sort of body modification.

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  12. Well then if we should get it done a a tattoo shop they should let kids under 18 get tattoos. Because I’m pretty sure “scene and emo” kids will want a stick ‘n’ poke because its less money and we can actually get it done.

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  14. While I agree some people are stupid, some people do research before they do things. I love the idea of stick n pokes. I bought sterilized needles, tattoo ink, and tattoo ink cups. I’ve been researching them for almost a year now.

  15. If you want everything all done for you with instructions – check out stick and poke tattoo kit dot com. I made a product to solve some issues around home tattooing and stick and poke tattoos. Sterile and medical materials with the best type of needle (to hold the ink). come find me.

  16. Do agree with the fact that stick n pokes can be dangerous. But only if they are not done right. I’ve had three stick n pokes done so far. India ink+cleaned *new* needles+cleanable ink cups. The problem is not that you’re going to die from infection; you would have to have a low low low immune system to die from a small infection like that. The needles, however should only be used on one person. Then they should be discarded. The needles should not be directly put into the bottle and when putting more ink into a cup, do not let the dropper touch the already used ink. I highly recommend learning this ancient art. For a Buddhist like myself these tattoos mean more than just marks on your skin. The only way I will go to a shop is if I want a big piece or lots of color. And even then I have machines of my own.

    Don’t be afraid of these people. If you want a stick n poke, go ahead. It’s an amazing experience. Just make sure you fallow safety guidelines. Never cross contaminate anything. I even have a certain towl I use for wiping MY SKIN and my skin alone. I ask whoever I am tattooing to supply a sanitary wipe.

    Be safe and have fun. Live it up. Cheers!

  17. Hey Guys,

    There are kits out there to do this safely. I made these to address the issues that you are complaining about – my kids include sterile, medical grade everything. I just added witch hazel and aquaphor to the next edition. Check out the site at stick and poke tattoo kit dot com.

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  20. I’m 13 and just did the stick n poke method because i was bored xD I made a triangle on my ankle and it turned out okay, I wouldn’t make a habit of doing it though because the tattoo turns out with load of little dots that you can see within the lines.

    Please don’t hate on me I’m really fucking impulsive :’)