Photo by Stevie Shao
A little over a month into New York’s stay-at-home order, Rian Phin, a 26-year old account executive in Brooklyn, was feeling antsy. They had spent the past few weeks watching movies and sewing while social-distancing in their apartment, but their worry about the pandemic was making them feel depressed and powerless.“I was just feeling super sad and existential,” Phin said. “I thought, Why not give myself a tattoo?”
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Phin purchased supplies from Stick and Poke Tattoo Kit, an online retailer that specializes in kits containing tattoo needles, ink and sanitary supplies. They debated tattooing something quarantine-related, like the date they started social-distancing or the floor plan of the apartment they have been quarantining in, but decided it was too “corny,” and instead settled on a rose. They looked up some images for inspiration on Pinterest, drew a design with a pen on their upper thigh, dipped their tattoo needle in a small pot of ink, and methodically punctured their skin, going over each of the lines they drew until the rose began to take shape.Phin isn’t alone in trying their hand at stick-and-poke tattoos during the pandemic. As people are stuck inside and swing between fear and boredom, some are turning to hand-poked tattoos for a creative distraction from their day-to-day realities. While baking bread and learning how to cut one’s own hair have been more common hobbies during isolation, stick-and-poke tattooing is attractive to many people because of the permanence that a tattoo offers, especially in the face of an unpredictable future.
West LaCount, the founder and owner of Stick and Poke Tattoo Kit, the retailer Phin bought their supplies from, said that sales have doubled since stay-at-home orders were put in place in the U.S.“I feel like it might correlate with the apocalyptic nature of what’s happening,” LaCount said. Their customers often send them pictures of the tattoos they make with LaCount’s kit, and they’ve noticed how often their customers talk about stick-and-poke tattoos as a way to take back control and claim an identity. “It’s very emotional, and a part of you,” LaCount said. “So I want people to do it safely.”
For Stevie Shao, a 22-year-old artist and design intern in Seattle, giving herself a stick-and-poke tattoo was a way to break up the tedium of weeks spent quarantining. “I was feeling bored,” Shao said. She already had tattoo needles and ink that she'd previously used to give herself little dots and touch up her finger tattoos, and she decided to turn her attention to more complicated designs. Over the past three weeks, she’s tattooed a sparkle on her knuckle, the word LOYALTY on her ankle, and the acronym FTWOS on her leg.
“It stands for ‘Fuck This World of Shit,’” Shao said with a laugh. She was happy with the results and the process and plans to give herself more tattoos over the next few weeks. “It’s just a different level of physical stimulation than most other activities [I'm] able to do right now,” she said.Tann Parker, a tattoo consultant and the founder of Ink the Diaspora, understands why people might be more inclined to give themselves stick-and-poke tattoos during the pandemic than they were before. “It could be a very healing thing to focus your energy into something that you're giving yourself,” they said. “It brings you back into this present state of mind and body.”Still, there are potential pitfalls that come with inking yourself at home. Avery Osajima, a professional tattoo artist in Seattle who specializes in hand-poked tattoos, cautioned ametuer stick-and-pokers to take the time to educate themselves about the risk of infection and blood-borne pathogens before starting their own miniature tattoo practice at home.
“The potential risks are really severe if you're tattooing with an unclean setup, both for yourself and for others,” Osajima said. She recommends taking the American Red Cross's online course on bloodborne pathogens, which professional tattoo artists need to complete once a year, before doing stick-and-poke tattoos at home. She also emphasized the importance of using sterile tattoo needles, never sharing them, and disposing of used needles in a sharps container or lidded plastic container, like Tupperware, to protect trash collectors. When people take the time to educate and protect themselves, Osajima, like Parker, said tattooing yourself can be “a super-intimate experience, and a beautiful way to sit with yourself and in your body.”Doing stick-and-poke tattoos at home during the pandemic has even made some people consider pursuing it in a more professional environment. Cherie Dee, a 29-year-old chef in Toronto, has given herself stick-and-pokes before, but hadn’t tattooed herself in about two years. At the end of March, she posted a video on Instagram of herself hand-poking the outline of a woman’s body on her left arm, and was surprised by how many people responded to it.
“I’m actually shocked that a lot of people are into it.” she said. “I’m an amateur, but my techniques are a little bit better than what [they were] compared to what I did the first time [I tattooed myself] four years ago.”
Dee is putting together a tattoo portfolio and thinking about how to keep pursuing stick-and-poke tattooing after the pandemic ends. “Maybe if everything comes back to normal, which I know it’s not going to be the same as it was, but I’m willing to do this part time,” Dee said. “Maybe like twice a week I could do it, and get some clients.”
Those who intend to keep their amateur status as stick-and-poke artists are pleased with the results they're coming away with, too. “I’m really happy with how it came out,” Phin said a week after giving themself their rose. “I honestly don’t think it would have been better if I went to a professional.”Making their own tattoo during a stressful and uncertain time was not only a nice distraction for Phin, but comforting. “It just feels like I own my own body,” they said. “I’m making decisions that are permanent and serious about it.”With each day of the pandemic feeling radically different from the last, the act of giving oneself a stick-and-poke tattoo can offer a much-needed creative respite—and give people the rare chance to make a lasting decision when so much of the future is still up in the air.Follow Emma Grillo on Twitter.