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Meet Homepoke, Toronto's Anonymous Stick 'n' Poke Iconoclast

Homepoke's one-time hobby is now something of a business, but he hasn't forgotten his anti-authoritarian roots.

by Aidan Johnston
Feb 4 2015, 4:37pm

In 20th-century Japan, tattoos were often signs of strength for members of the Yakuza. For the Maori people of New Zealand they symbolize social status. For many North Americans, they're the most straight-forward way of saying "fuck you" to your parents. If there's one that embodies all these influences, it's the original hands-on form of body artistry: the stick 'n' poke.

When I first heard that there was a stick 'n' poke studio in Toronto, I pictured a couple of pals high on mushrooms sitting under a tree giving each other Spongebob tats. This is a huge contrast to the cozy, curtained basement where artist Homepoke has set up. After garnering a devout following on Instagram and an overwhelming number of requests from people eager to let him permanently doodle on them, Homepoke realized his artwork had become more than just a hobby. He opened up shop in December.

As his following grows, his clean, elegant black line aesthetic continues to break the traditional association of stick 'n' pokes to jail time in a Russian gulag and teenage first-time fails that leave the subjects with amorphous blobs that look like they were done with washed out Bic pens. We visited Homepoke's studio where we watched the artist ink himself a new piece while we chatted about the popularity of pokes, people who don't have tattoos, and the culture of not caring.

Photos by Aaron Wynia unless otherwise specified

VICE: What are you giving yourself right now?
Homepoke: This is a design off a flash sheet that I call, "Fuck everything or don't fuck anything at all." It's a theme I've been working with a lot. It's the idea of duality in the social landscape. This little dude was just a self-portrait that I drew based on how I felt at the time.

It looks like the giant clown that the Bowsers ride around on in Mario Kart. What's the main difference between home-pokes and regular tattooing for you?
For me and people it's mostly been a matter of intrusiveness. The method of hand-poking is a lot less invasive on the skin and the of line is often very different.

What about in terms of or instruments?
I use the same instruments, the same needles and the same ink. Material-wise it's the same. I suppose the biggest difference would be the finished product and the of imagery that people most often associate with stick 'n' poke. People usually look for something a little more simplistic or a little more abstract, not as much shading, and they're usually looking for it to have a more handcrafted style, not so much of a machine style.

You don't use any machines, right?
Yeah. There's a big trend of revealing the artist's hand, which is something I really appreciate and vibe with. It's based on prison style.

Instagram of a Homepoke tattoo

Because of the comparative simplicity of it, is it viewed as "amateur"?
It depends on who you're talking to and how informed they are about tattooing or tattoo history. Hand poke is traditional in a lot of places outside of North America: Asia's huge, same with eastern Europe—like in Moscow. It was a bit of a North American misconception, when tattoos over here became really popular with the Sailor Jerry style, that it was all machine done. So that's what led people to believe that was the classic tattooing or method, when there have been variances in traditional styles forever.

So why stick 'n' poke for you?
What got me into it was literal necessity. I've been part of a low-income family and community for my whole life and had been interested in tattooing. I didn't have access to parlours, so the more that I dedicated myself to using my body for expression, the more I needed to figure out how to do it for less money. I started learning how to tattoo maybe five or six years ago, really rudimentary; sewing needle, thread, ink. And that lead to, obviously, a lot of unsatisfactory results.

Another Homepoke Instagram

So did you just get halfway through shit and realize you had to commit even if it sucked?
Yeah. I mean, that's the nice thing about stick 'n' poke: there's an amount of appreciation for a bad tattoo that you don't often find in machine tattooing. A huge component of stick 'n' poke has to do with the experience of getting or giving yourself that tattoo, in that moment. That's a big part of it. It's dedication to a moment, or experience, or friendship. I would always finish the tattoo, then if it turned out really unsatisfactory I would just have to deal with that. It inspired me to source out better materials, better methods of depositing the ink in my skin, finding better inks, better needles.

That's always been my concept of stick 'n' pokes: homie tattoos that you give each other while camping. But now that you're doing these in a studio, removed from those friendships, does it feel different?That's what's been really interesting: in the last two years, stick 'n'poke has garnered a much larger following and market. And my has developed in a way that I can definitely understand why more people would want to get it and why getting a stick 'n' poke from someone can be considered similar to going to a parlour. It's become a more notable commodity in the tattoo industry.

How do your rates compare with other artists?
I work on a case-by-case basis, which I think is important in the spirit of accessibility. I take a lot of things into consideration. It's more important to me that people have access to cool tattoos, so I'm not really trying to bust anyone's balls just to get ahead.

You're only known as Homepoke; what's the deal with your anonymity?
I like to protect myself, I believe in local marketplaces and DIY, and I don't necessarily believe in the government having its hand in everything.

And it's kind of illegal what you're doing, right?
No one would be too happy from a government standpoint to know that I was tattooing people in a basement with a they would consider vagrant or dangerous. It's because you're piercing the skin, but I am using all the same materials and same practices [as other tattoo artists]. I've learned a lot from other artists and that's where I take all my cues from. I've only once encountered a sanitary issue: it was with myself, four years ago, and I was drunk at the time. I wasn't really being careful.

Are you noticing a stick 'n' poke resurgence?
Yeah definitely, there's a lot of artists in shops now who are doing hand-poke tattoos and there's a lot of tools being designed for stick 'n' pokes now. Actually, Jenna Bouma was featured on VICE not too long ago. She's a really successful stick 'n' poke artist hailing from Edmonton. There's a bigger message behind what I do and that comes from my history, and how I came around to doing this, and I want that to be the focus rather than piggybacking this new trend.

Intricate insect tattoo via Homepoke's Instagram

Do you think the popularity of it coincides with the trend of refuting technology and doing things in a more meticulous and traditional way?Yeah, I feel like tattooing is a culture of rebellion and a culture of not giving any fucks so it's inevitable that, whatever is popular at the time, there will be a revolt [against it]. With machine tattooing becoming so commoditized and popular, people were really appreciating tattoos for the cleanliness of the line, the brightness of the colours, the crispness of the finished product. So that's been the most valued aspect of the process at the time. It was only natural for clients to say, "Fuck that. I'm going to do the exact opposite." It's a natural cycle of rebellion.

On that note, do you feel that with the proliferation of tattoos that they've lost their edge? It's almost more surprising when people don't have any tattoos now.
It's more subversive when someone hasn't participated in any sort of body mod, but again it depends on the type of tattoo and the intention behind it. There are people who accessorize through tattooing. For me, it's everything that I use to express myself. And I don't know if that's for everyone.

If you don't really give a fuck about anything, what makes you believe in stick 'n' poke?
It's exactly that: it's making use of what we have to stay interested and invested. It's tattooing that keeps me invested in life, so it's using that to make your life more bearable and giving people access to that as well. My studio is my little clubhouse for developing a new system for people who generally don't feel 100 percent about what's going on outside of the clubhouse.

Follow Homepoke on Instagram, and keep a lookout for his upcoming art show at Parkdale's Capitol Espresso Bar.

Follow Aaron Wynia on Twitter.