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By Laurrel Allison 08/09/2017

It was a warm evening in September in 2010. I was outside near a bonfire with a friend I knew from high school. He had a small slew of friends who were gathered around, drinking and carrying on. One of them asked me if I wanted a tattoo. I was a bit surprised by his invitation. He laughed at my hesitation and rolled up his t-shirt sleeve to reveal a very wobbly version of Jack from The Nightmare Before Christmas right below his shoulder. 


“Check it out,” the stranger grinned amiably. “This was one of the first ones I got. Pretty good, right?” I wasn’t exactly sure if he actually expected me to agree with him. Apparently, it was an unofficial tradition of theirs to get a good beer buzz with a bunch of friends before heading indoors and breaking out the tattoo kit. The guy shrugged, noticing my disinterest in his shoddily-executed tattoos and sauntered off to grab another beer. 

Although it may have been a strange practice at the time, stick and poke tattoos have become a more noticeable trend. Stick and poke tattoos are traditionally done by hand. The tattoos are crafted dot by dot. Poke by poke. Naturally, it can take a bit longer (and it’s more cumbersome at first) than a tattoo done with a tattoo machine. There’s usually one or more needles fastened at the end of a small, oblong instrument or some sort of small stick. This stick is then used to aim at the skin and carefully poke out the design. However, there are other artists who choose to use nothing else save for a single needle grasped within the hand.


Stick and poke tattoos are great for people seeking minimalistic tattoos or for those who like the wild, artsy side of tattooing. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a tattoo has been created using the stick and poke method. The lines may not be completely filled in. Perhaps it’s not as straight as it could be. But generally, hand-poked tattoos will look pretty awesome if they’re not done by someone who isn’t dealing with boredom and a beer buzz. 


Whether or not tattoos done by the stick and poke method will last longer than those done with a coil or rotary machine is a question frequently tossed about. Some may believe hand-executed tattoos may not last that long. The truth is that this really depends on the skill of the artist. If the needle (from a machine or a stick) doesn’t go deep enough, then there definitely will not be a lasting impression. “The hand-poked method is better in the long run,” explains Jordan Dornacher of Montpellier, in the south of France. He’s been a licensed tattoo artist for the past two years with a penchant for the stick and poke method. “Many older professionals that I know say that the hand-poked style works better in specific parts of the body where ink can fade, such as the hands and fingers.” Jordan is an artist who believes that tattoo guns “hurt the skin too much”. He prefers the “less violent” aspect of hand-poking.  


It’s not always about a needle making too shallow of a poke. If a tattoo artist is careless and goes too deep it can do some serious damage. When a needle is thrust too deep in the skin, it causes tattoo blowout. Tattoo blowout can lead to scarring and some pretty messed up looking tattoos. But stick and poke tattoos are not the culprit for this sort of thing. Anyone who hasn’t had sufficient training or who isn’t taking enough care with their work can be to blame for tattoo blowout. 


So why do some people prefer this method over the traditional method? It’s certainly not easier to execute. “(With the stick and poke method), you have to do a line and put many dots in the same direction,” relates Jordan. But he enjoys the pace of hand-poking his clients in his private studio. “It’s much calmer. You can do it anywhere because you don’t need electricity.”

it’s true that many artists have begun learning this method professionally. I talked to another tattoo artist named Chris “Coco” Magnusson from Berlin. I was curious as to why he opted for hand-poked tattoos over the traditional method that many other artists employ. 


“I started doing hand-poked tattoos after feeling that a machine felt wrong in the hand,” detailed Coco. “I like the directness of just the needle between me and the client. It simply feels more natural to me to just use the needle. I don’t wrap the needles or put it on a stick or whatever.” 


And though it seems to be a fad amongst the Millennial generation, it appears that the young at heart are also getting involved with the trend. “I get all kinds of clients which is really cool,” Coco divulged. “A lot of young people and some grandparents.” 
Traditional tattoos can take weeks to heal up completely. There’s the scabbing part and the itchy part. But with hand-poked tattoos, this process goes a lot differently. “If it’s done correctly, (hand-poked tattoos heal) very fast and without scabs,” notes Coco. “My tattoos usually heal within 4-5 days.” This is because stick and poke tattoos are a lot less invasive than tattoos done by coil or rotary rigs. 


To those unfamiliar with the stick and poke tattoos, the idea could sound rather amateur. This is a bit ironic considering that this practice has actually been around for centuries. If you’re afraid about an unhygienic needle, rest assured that you’re usually pretty safe. Professional tattoo artists always sanitize their equipment. Even if you’re doing it at home with a friend, there’s always a lighter handy that will do the trick nicely. 
Tattoos generally hurt. Luckily, my tattoos are fairly small and my pain tolerance is pretty high. Others are not so lucky. “I feel that (hand-poking) doesn’t hurt as much as a machine-made tattoo,” Coco says, offering his opinion on the matter. “But of course pain is individual. It takes a bit longer but hurts less so I guess you can say that it is almost equal except for the healing.” 


There are further perks to specializing in hand-poked tattoos. The first thing that came to my mind when I was learning more about hand-poking was the noticeable lack of constant mechanical whirring. Jordan is not alone in enjoying the lack of machine buzzing in the foreground. Coco is all for the quiet atmosphere, if only for the ability it gives him to listen to his playlist. “It’s nice to be able to listen to some extreme death trash mental metal instead of a machine.”


“(Hand-poked tattoos) will stay forever if they are done properly,” Coco added. “Only thing I noticed is that hand poked tattoos sometimes get blurrier with time. I don’t see a problem with this because tattoos are tattoos and time stops for nobody. Tattoos are as alive as the bodies which they adorn.”

Laurrel Allison

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