The needle pokes into your skin, piercing it so the tattoo drips into your flesh. Poke, poke, poke.
It hurts, but don’t you dare wince: You’re the one hammering the ink into yourself. A heart on your wrist, a leaf on your ankle, the word “remember” on your ribs. It’s like what you used to doodle with a pen in the seventh grade, only this time, it’s permanent.
This is “stick and poke,” a method of tattooing once reserved for jailbirds but now increasingly popular among young people and creative types.
Like traditional tattoos, stick-and-pokes are meant to provide a reminder of a milestone passed or a daily inspiration toward a future goal. But now that practically everyone in your life has a pricey tattoo-parlor memento somewhere on their flesh — your boss, your mom, maybe even your priest — the allure of rebellion they once commanded has been lost.
But a tat you did yourself with little more than a common sewing needle? Cue the eyebrow raises.
Health experts raise concerns about the risks of blood-borne disease and infections associated with DIY tattooing, given that people may not disinfect their implements. The safest stick-and-pokes are drawn with professional-caliber tattoo ink or India ink from a reputable store — but it’s completely possible, and terribly fashionable, to just break open a ball-point pen.
“It’s kind of blowing up at the moment among people who want something that’s not the mainstream,” said British artist Sarah March, who began doing stick-and-poke on her friends two years ago after seeing the trend on Instagram.
Now she does them professionally, for people of all ages. Many are inspired by tattoos that appear to be stick-and-pokes on celebrities like Rihanna and Kesha. Others are drawn to the small symbol tattoos they’re seeing all over Pinterest and Tumblr. Some like the idea of a traditional tattoo but are too intimidated to actually do it.
“The atmosphere when you’re getting a stick-and-poke tattoo is much more relaxed,” March said. “There’s a real personal aspect which you don’t generally get in a normal tattoo parlor.”
Most people skip the professionals altogether and create tattoos from items lying around the house, or with a few inexpensive online purchases. They are meant to last as long as regular tattoos, but are known to fade eventually depending on how much ink is poked into the skin and how deep it goes.
Tutorials explaining how do to your own tattoo can be found online in seconds. First, the needle is typically attached to an object that makes it easier to hold, like a pencil. Then a thread is wound tightly around the needle. When the needle is dipped into ink, this thread holds the liquid, which drips into the skin as the needle is pressed down about one-eighth of an inch. Repeat a few times, and you’ve got yourself a tattoo.
It was that easy for Stephanie Hernandez, an 18-year-old who inked herself with a friend in September, a few weeks into her freshman year at University of California at Berkeley.
“It’s a thing I had always wanted to do but never really had the guts to do it,” Hernandez said. “I got a sad face on myself, and she got a heart. It was a rebellion of sorts, like, oh, I’m independent now.”
The tiny sad face sits on her right hand, between her index finger and her thumb. She intended to add a second pair of eyes so that it would look like a happy face from a different angle, but the tattooing took so long that she never really got around to it. At the time, she was feeling pretty sad anyway: Her grandfather had died, there was drama in her family, and the emotions of settling into a new place were overwhelming.
“When I look at it now, I see how I’ve grown so much since I got it,” she said.
Over the holidays, her family couldn’t seem to understand the sad face’s higher purpose; they just sighed in relief that the tattoo is so small.
Instagram and Pinterest are full of more radical examples: The faces of Beavis and Butthead on a guy’s knees, the words “Now can an angel break my heart?” across a sternum; “DON’T WAKE” on a pair of eyelids. Professionally inked tattoos have just as much potential to turn regrettable, but the cost and process of setting up an appointment can serve as a buffer to impulsiveness.
Even more serious than regretting your homemade ink is the possibility of getting sick from it.
“The contamination of materials with biological pathogens from sharing needles with your friends can happen, whether you sterilize it quickly with a match or not,” said Nicole West, a former biology teacher who began considering the risks of stick-and-pokes when she was getting a circle on her wrist from a friend. “You’re young, you’re intoxicated, you don’t know — HIV, hepatitis C, all the major killers that are bloodborne can be passed quickly.”
So she began selling kits online, filled with sterile materials and directions for how to do stick-and-poke safely. For $42, you get professional tattoo ink, sterile needles, stencil paper, wipes, medical gloves and after-care balm.
Though she has been criticized for selling a product that encourages at-home tattooing, West argues that the kit is safer than any other at-home method. Even with those precautions, there is still a potential for something to go wrong. As with traditional tattoos, it’s very possible to have an allergic reaction to the ink, for example.
“Especially with these inks from a pen, what else is in it? Nothing meant to be placed in the body,” said Cameron Rokhsar, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital who has removed handmade tattoos from patients. They’re typically easier to remove than regular tattoos, because there is less ink in the skin.
Enthusiasts say not to expect this trend to be as easily wiped away — people tattooed themselves long before there were machines to do it for them or iPhones to Instagram their art. But chances are, DIY tats will never be a major threat to the traditional tattoo industry. In many states, it’s illegal to tattoo others without a license. And even if your friend is a great artist and a steady-handed tatttoer, a stick-and-poke tattoo will always have a different look than a professional one, said Denver graphic designer Evan Lorenzen, who has both.
“It’s like playing a synthesizer versus a piano; they both are capable of creating beautiful sounds with very different tones and personalities,” Lorenzen said.
If you want a colored or intricately shaded tattoo — or one in a place you can’t easily reach — you’re still likely to go to a professional. If you want a sad face on your hand, this trend’s for you.
And as with regular tattoos, good luck not getting addicted. Hernandez is already planning her next stick-and-poke, this time for the back of her ankles:
“2015 sucks. . . . But it’s OK.” Or something like that, she says.