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The History of Stick and Poke Tattoos

All tattoos evolved from native tattooing practices. Samoan, Japanese Ainu, Native American, and ancient Mayan body art are some of the most well-known. A surplus of ancient cultures took part in tattooing, all before the days of machinery.

When evangelicals and other more modern religions swept the world, many tattooing practices were lost. Some still held, but tattooing became much less common. Since then, home tattooing has been preserved and has made a sweeping comeback. 

And of course, now that machine tattooing is more socially acceptable, people have rebelled against that as well — the rebels of rebellion. And they’ve forked the road for a different kind of hand-poked tattoo.

What Is Modern Stick and Poke Culture?

Two kinds of tattooing could be considered “hand poke” or “stick and poke” tattoos today. One is the preserved traditional methods from indigenous and native cultures, and the other is the Do-It-Yourself culture that comes from crafty modern punks. 

Tracing the history of DIY stick-and-poke is impossible. A lot of hand poke history was off-the-record in basements, house parties, and green rooms. We’ll still try to take a swim in it though — we owe this badass style that!

DIY Culture

Do-it-yourself! DIY culture is about not being able to or not wanting to pay a professional to do something that you could “probably do yourself” at a bargain. 

Tattoos, in general, have only become more widely accepted in the last decade or two, so you can imagine the people who started getting tattoos prior were people in fringe culture — punks, criminals, rockstars, bad boys, bikers, queers, skaters, etc. 

And what goes hand-in-hand with being on the outskirts of culture? Not being particularly affluent. 

You usually find your family in your friends when it's a hard-knock life. And what bonds you together better than blood? Badges banded in blood — tattoos, our friend. Getting inked is like wearing a badge for your beliefs or community. 

So why not professional tattoos? Well, they’re expensive and not quite as badass as a stick and poke. Stick and poke tattooing is unregulated. You can get a stick and poke backstage from your favorite band's drummer or on a skate park bench after a few beers. 

Today the stick and poke culture has gotten itself off the streets and into high-quality tattoo shops. It is on par with machine tattoo culture, and you can find both types of artists working in the same tattoo shops. 

That’s not to say home-brewed stick and pokes don’t exist today. You probably know five different friends who have gone through a stick and poke phase. And if you need to make up for the lack of DIY in your group, you can easily order a stick and poke kit online. 

Edgy Allure

Some people seem to think that stick and poke tattoos come from more illicit places. Hand poke tattoos are also known to your grandparents as prison tattoos. And not without a lack of reason. Stick and pokes are, in fact, very popular in the American prison system.

Many prison tattoos are decrees of gang associations, while others are similar to tattoos we have all gotten — meaningful marks for loved ones or passages of time. The difference is that prison tattoos are the most DIY of all tattoos. Still, you’d be impressed with the caliber of quality of some of these guitar-string stick and pokes.

Stick and pokes take a certain kind of bravery. It’s more dangerous than sitting in a tattoo shop. It makes sense why some rebels would be inspired by prison tattoos and revolt against the machine tattoo culture for a more handmade method.

Hygienic Stigma

Stick and pokes have a stigma for being the nastiest of all tattoos. Fair, considering the number of hand pokes we’ve seen happening drunk in someone’s room while a rambunctious band is playing to a house full of people — definitely not recommended.

Non-sterilized tattoo venues aren’t great, but they make for awesome stories, which is a draw in the DIY tattoo scene. 

But like we said, the standards set for stick and pokes have taken a huge turn. Those risky tattoos are still happening in your friend's house venue, but the number of people doing stick and pokes professionally, or at least semi-professionally, have skyrocketed. 

This is another issue because professional tattoo artists are trained to deal with bloody situations. It varies state by state, but some tattoo artists have completed certain health certifications or specific courses on avoiding cross-contamination.

Still, the amount of reported tattoo infections is relatively low — between half a percent and six percent of people with tattoos experience infection. 

How Does a Stick and Poke Work?

Whether you’ve found a local stick and poke artist, or are considering doing it at home (we really wouldn’t recommend it), here is what you need to know. Becoming a stick and poke artist is a viable career option, but safety is essential.

Equipment

Rather than a tattoo machine, stick and pokes require different equipment. Here is an extensive list:

  • A new razor: To remove hair from the tattoo area.
  • Clean water and fragrance-free, antibacterial soap: To wash the tattoo area.
  • Paper towels: To pat the cleaned tattoo area dry, put underneath your tools, and wipe up any excess ink or blood.
  • Alcohol wipes: For sterilization of the area you are going to tattoo.
  • Medical gloves: To protect from icky bacteria.
  • Sterile tattoo needles: Needles must be individually sealed and not expired. You can only use a single needle once per person. No sewing needles allowed!
  • Needle wrap or an unsharpened pencil and tape: Needle wrap is a cushy tape used to wrap the needle create a sort of handle. Some people also tape their needles to a hard surface like a pencil or a capped pen. 
  • Non-toxic tattoo ink: Quality, reputable ink without toxins is best.
  • Ink container: This is like a little thimble that holds a bit of tattoo ink while you are stick-and-poking. You can only use these once per person.
  • Aftercare ointment: Once the session is over, you’ll want to protect the fresh tattoo with a soothing, hydrating ointment. Mad Rabbit Soothing Gel is a clean-made, tattoo-specific alternative to heavy, chemical ointments that aren’t meant for tattoo healing.

Safety

Make sure you and your artist or client are healthy. If anyone is feeling sick, hold off for now.

All the needles should be medical-grade stainless steel and come in a sealed package signifying they are sterilized and ready for human use. Make sure they are not expired. If expired, you can use them for practice on inanimate objects.

Thoroughly clean and sanitize your work area and equipment. Make sure there is no leftover equipment from your last session and that what is reusable has been wiped down and cleaned. You don’t want to be the beginner tattooer that gives someone an infection.

Thoroughly wash your hands with fragrance-free, antibacterial soap, and don’t forget underneath the fingernails and up the arm to the elbow.

Wear gloves and have a designated trash bag for the session. Since you’ll be dealing with blood and needles, you’ll want to ensure everything is successfully thrown away. Dispose of needles in a sharps collection box. You can get one for yourself, or your county usually has one for public use. You don’t want your unsuspecting sanitation worker poked with a used needle.

Start Small

Choose an easy design for your first tattoo. Even if you are a skilled artist, poking into someone’s skin is a whole other art, and you are new here. So tread with caution. Choose a simple and small tattoo for a DIY stick and poke in case you can’t create those bold lines you are going for yet.

Practice

We recommend you start practicing on an inanimate surface at first. You can buy silicon skin, but people have used rubber baby dolls and citrus fruit like oranges and grapefruit as a cheaper alternative.

Position

The tattooed body part should stay in a relaxed position. You want the design to look great, so make sure the skin is not pulled in an odd direction.

Poking

Stretch the skin where you want to tattoo with one hand, and poke with the other hand. Hold the needle at about a 45-degree angle from the skin. This will give you the steadiest hand and visibility. 

Poking Depth

Start shallow and go deeper on the second pass. You can always add more ink over time, but you don’t want to go too deep with a needle and blow the ink out. With practice, you will start to be able to feel the right puncture depth for the needle.

Pro tip: You want to feel the needle pop out as you go. This subtle popping tells you that you have reached the right depth. 

Passes

Don’t make over four passes on the tattoo. Once you’ve gone over the same area four times, schedule another session to touch up what you need to once it is healed. The skin will be irritated and inflamed at that point, so it needs rest.

Aftercare

Don’t poke and run. Set your tattooee up for success with subliminal aftercare. Carefully cleanse the freshly tattooed area and apply that lovely Mad Rabbit Soothing Gel at the end. Bandage your work up with a Tegaderm or something equivalent to give your client a few hours to get their tattoo back to a safe place.

You’ll also want to send your friend off with a few instructions to follow on their own. So, read up about the best aftercare and tattoo healing practices.

In Summary

Modern-day stick and poke culture has an evolution of its own, and there’s no telling where it originated. It was born in dark and seedy places, and now it lives in light next to your favorite machine artist. 

Stick and pokes have a different vibrancy to them than machine tattoos. If you want to get your hands dirty, we will help you do so safely. Clean them before and after, and use gloves. Make sure you buy the necessary equipment and make sure it’s quality – no prison tattooing!

Getting a stick and poke from a professional tattoo artist isn’t much different than getting one from a machine tattoo artist. Well, there are differences but not much in professionalism. 

Getting a stick and poke at your friend’s friend’s crib is different. So is giving one at your friend’s friend’s crib. Mind the differences and stick to as professional as possible if you are playing with someone's epidermis. 

Again, we do not recommend doing this at home! Luckily for all of us, stick and poke artists are popping up everywhere. 

 

Sources:

The Cultural Heritage of Tattooing: A Brief History | PubMed

Handymen, Hippies and Healing: Social Transformation through the DIY Movement in North America | Architectural Histories

The Underground Art of Prison Tattoos | The Marshall Project

Best Way to Get Rid of Used Needles and Other Sharps | FDA

Tattoo License | NYC Business

The Risk of Bacterial Infection After Tattooing | PMC

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