If you’ve been on social media any time in the past year, you’ve probably seen a few homemade stick and poke tattoos. Whether it’s to regain a sense of control in the limbo that is COVID quarantine, an act of apocalyptic impulse in the face of uncertainty, or simply a new daily habit, stick and poke tattoos have become immensely popular among those stuck at home.
With a quick browse online, you can find DIY tattoo kits that include everything you need to kickstart your stick and poke adventure (needles, gloves, stencils) — home tattooing has perhaps never been more accessible. And I, like many others, recently decided to dip my toes into the trend. I got a friend who was down for creating some homemade tattoos, watched a couple of YouTube tutorials, and just started poking. Admittedly, this wasn’t my best idea. Our tattoos turned out to be grim reminders of our artistic limitations — misaligned little black dots struggling to form what we cannot in good conscience call lines.
So, in search of some professional advice to make my next DIY tattoo a little less wretched, I spoke to three professional tattoo artists who offered tips for beginners looking to get in on some of that stick and poke action.
What is a stick and poke tattoo?
Also known as hand-poked tattoos, stick and poke tattoos are created by dipping a needle in ink and manually poking the skin with it. While the technique is certainly more beginner-friendly than machine tattoos, that doesn’t mean it’s any less legit — they’re just as permanent and have a style of their own.
“I do think hand-poked tattoos can look just as nice as machine tattoos,” Vivien Su, a 21-year-old part-time tattoo artist in Singapore told VICE. She started hand-poking last year, while the country was in lockdown, and recently opened her own studio.
Vivien likens hand-poked tattoos to “drawing on a sheet of paper,” and machine tattoos to “drawing on your iPad.” While machine tattoos will probably give a cleaner look, she thinks that both offer different effects.
What is the best design for a first DIY stick and poke tattoo?
“I think anything simple,” said Vivien, whose first DIY stick and poke was a little lightning bolt. “I think that was a pretty good idea for a first one because it [had] very clean lines. There was not much detail to it.”
For her first DIY stick and poke, 29-year-old Malaysian tattoo artist Chua Yi Min drew a little cat on her inner thigh. But she recommends first-timers to go for small, simple designs consisting of straight lines.
“A word is always a good one,” said Patrick, a 39-year-old London-based tattoo artist who goes by @european.son.420 on Instagram. The first tattoo he gave himself was a little “X.”
“When you first start, you wanna take your time with poking, especially if you are not very familiar with the technique,” said Vivien. “Since hand-poking already takes much longer than machine tattoos, just start very small.”
Where on the body should you put a stick and poke tattoo?
“It depends on your priorities,” said Vivien, who suggests the forearms and thighs for a less painful experience. Finding a spot where the skin is already stretched would work well for a first tattoo. Vivien said she did her first tattoo on her ankle even though it was a “very painful area,” just because the stretched skin in that part is easier to poke.
Patrick also recommends going for the thighs. “If they’re doing it on their arm, they’ve only got one hand, and it’s hard to tattoo one-handed. So if they really just wanna tattoo themselves, they should try it on their thigh,” he said.
How safe is a stick and poke tattoo?
Tattooing yourself at home comes with its fair share of safety risks — from staph infections to bloodborne diseases. That’s why if you do want to DIY, it’s very important to keep things clean (Read: never, ever, reuse your needles). And not having professional hygiene advice is no excuse for stick and poke beginners. “These are the things you really can Google,” said Patrick, adding that tattooing equipment should be completely sterile.
OK, so how do you stick and poke?
Start with a sketch. Yi Min said that when using a pen to sketch out your tattoo design, it’s important to keep your body relaxed and natural. This is so that the sketch will look like how it’s supposed to, on your body.
Next, it’s important to stretch the skin where you’re tattooing. “That’s the most important [part],” said Patrick. “You need to have a really good stretch.” While one hand does the poking, the other hand is responsible for stretching the skin.
When piercing into the skin, the ink-dipped needle is usually angled at 45 degrees — though there are no hard and fast rules about this. Vivien noted that this is because it’s harder to be precise if the needle is poking perpendicular to the skin. The direction in which you’re poking also matters.
“If there was a straight line…I would start from the bottom and slowly pull the line up,” explained Vivien. According to her, it’s easier to make a clean line that way.
Now here’s the tricky part: how deep should you go? By poking too shallow, the ink may drop out instead of remaining under the skin. But go too deep, and the ink may spread — this is known as a blowout, which causes tattoos to look a little blurry. According to the three tattoo artists, knowing how deep to go is definitely something that comes with practice. But they generally agree that it’s better to start off light.
“You can always go back and add ink…but you cannot take ink out of your skin,” said Vivien, who added that she would “much rather under poke” her clients and have them come back for another session, than over poke them and end up with lines that are too thick.
It’s also important to note that everyone’s skin is different. This means adjusting your tattoo session according to how your skin reacts. Yi Min said that she usually goes over the tattoo at least twice to fill in any gaps, but no more than four times.
“Going over the tattoo too many times will hurt the skin. The tattooed part will become swollen,” she explained. If your skin is getting really red and bumpy, it’s better to leave the tattooing for another session.
Don’t be too worried if there are empty spaces between the dots. Instead of rushing to touch it up, give your new tattoo a little time — the ink may spread a little under the skin over the next couple of weeks, filling up these little spaces.
What is the best aftercare for stick and poke tattoos?
When the tattoo is complete, cover it with cling wrap for at least five hours. Patrick suggests keeping the fresh tattoo covered for two or three days while avoiding baths, swimming pools, and the sun during the healing process. After all, “a tattoo is a wound,” he said.
It’s normal for the tattoo to itch and flake, said Yi Min. And if you spot any gaps between the hand-poked dots that you want to fill out, she suggests waiting for two to four weeks before touching up. This would give the skin ample time to heal and ready itself for your next tattoo session. During this period, she suggests avoiding activities that would irritate or twist the newly tattooed skin.
As a visual art form, it’s very tempting — and possibly demoralizing — to pit your homemade stick and poke against professionally done machine tattoos.
“I was very very hard on myself when I started hand-poked tattoos because I was comparing my work to machine tattoos, and I think that’s a very unrealistic expectation to set,” said Vivien. “Don’t think about creating a beautiful, super detailed piece when it’s your first time.”
After all, it’s often more about the DIY experience.
“I think the hand-poke culture compared to machine [tattoos] is a little less formal, which is why it’s so approachable and why so many people get into it,” said Vivien. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
This is true for me. Two sessions and five ugly tattoos later, my friend and I have become a little more comfortable with hand-poking. Neither of us are too bothered by how shoddy they look compared to professionally done tattoos, their raw dottiness attesting to the lazy afternoons we spent in her bedroom chatting and poking.
“A lot of my tattoos, the ones that aren't done so well…those are the ones that I enjoy the most,” said Patrick.
“When people are tattooing their friends in their bedrooms…it's just a nice moment between a couple of people and it results in a tattoo. Even if it's just a dot or something small, hopefully in 10 years’ time, that person will say, ‘oh yeah, I remember that night.’”