Like homemade sourdough and DIY haircuts, stick poke tattoos — also called stick and poke, hand poke, and machine-free tattoos — are having a moment.
Of course, just like sourdough and home haircuts, stick poke tattoos have had many moments around the world, over the years.
Tattoos inked by hand significantly predate machine tattoos. And traditional tattooing practices, like Japanese tebori, have a long cultural history.
Cultural traditions aside, many DIY tattoos have been inked in prisons, club bathrooms, or by cash-strapped amateurs in basements.
When done by a professional, stick and poke tattoos are made using the same needles and ink as machine tattoos. The only difference? They’re done entirely by hand.
Nonprofessionals sometimes use stick and poke tattoo kits, which come with fillable needles or single needles with a handle. Some people get crafty and create their own equipment, sometimes by taping a sewing needle to the end of a stick or pencil.
Unlike a tattoo gun that continuously punctures ink into the skin to create the design, stick and poke tattoo designs typically use a “dot work” technique. The artist fills the needle with ink and then pokes tiny dots into the skin, forming the lines that eventually make up the design.
As with most manual labor, machine-free tattoos take a lot longer to complete.
Stick poke tattoos are safe when done by professional artists with sterile equipment and quality ink in a clean space.
Getting a stick poke tattoo done by someone who lacks professional training and experience with sterilization practices can mean you run a higher risk for infection, injury, and other complications.
A stick poke tattoo might seem more appealing to you than a machine tattoo, because:
- they often cost less, especially if you do them yourself with a kit
- you can achieve a delicate look, which isn’t as easy with the crisp lines created by a tattoo gun
- you can do them on your own time, in the comfort of home
It’s hard to say how the pain level compares. Anecdotally, the consensus seems fairly mixed. Some people find stick poke tattoos to be less painful than machine tats. Others say the opposite.
With both types, the pain level usually comes down to the placement of the tattoo, plus your pain tolerance.
Another factor that might play a role is your ability to handle the steady and consistent motion of a needle on a tattoo gun, compared with the more sporadic needling of the hand-poke technique.
Someone tattooing themselves or being hand-inked by an inexperienced person might feel less pain if the tattoo artist uses cautious pressure. This is often the case when a newbie, quite understandably, worries about inflicting pain.
Stick poke tattoos present a few different risks, most of which can be mitigated by leaving the tattooing to an experienced and reputable professional.
Needle punctures create open wounds that provide bacteria and other microorganisms an entry point into your body. Infection can occur from contact with an improperly sanitized needle, surface, or hands. The risk for infection continues if you don’t practice proper aftercare.
There’s also the risk of contracting a bloodborne infection, like tetanus, hepatitis B and C, or HIV, if the equipment (needles, ink, cups, etc.) is shared or reused.
Equipment contaminated with infected blood can transfer these infections into your bloodstream.
The risk for allergic reaction is also something to consider. It’s possible to have an allergy to ink ingredients, or even the metal(s) of the needle.
Scarring also becomes more likely with unsafe tattooing techniques and improper aftercare.
If you’re planning to get a stick poke tattoo, you’ll want to choose a tattoo artist who uses sterile equipment and works in a clean environment.
Good aftercare is key to avoiding infection and other complications.
It’s best to stop the tattoo session at the first sign of:
- excessive bleeding
- excessive discomfort
You’ll also want to watch for signs of infection and other complications as your tattoo heals. Connect with a healthcare professional right away if you experience signs of infection, such as:
- severe or worsening pain, redness, or swelling
- pus or foul-smelling discharge from the tattoo site
- persistent or excessive bleeding
- skin abscess
Professional stick and poke tattoo artists charge between $100 and $150, on average. How much you pay depends on how big and detailed of a design you want.
Your location, plus the artist’s experience and popularity, can also influence the cost.
If you’re talking DIY, you can buy stick and poke tattoo kits online from $15 to $200.
Stick poke tattoos may heal a bit faster if your skin wasn’t punctured as deeply, but that doesn’t mean you can skimp on aftercare.
Tattoos typically take at least 2 to 3 weeks to heal, so practice good aftercare for at least that long — even if your tattoo looks healed.
Taking care of your tattoo can help prevent infection and improve the healing process. It’s always best to follow the aftercare instructions your tattoo artist provides.
Didn’t get it done professionally? Our guide to tattoo aftercare can help.
Make no mistake — stick poke tattoos are permanent when done correctly.
There *is* a possibility the ink won’t stay if the needle doesn’t puncture deep enough. Puncture too deep, however, and you run the risk of bleeding or blowout, not to mention scarring and pain.
That’s another reason why seeking out a professional hand-poke tattoo artist is important. They’ve mastered the technique and depth needed to achieve a clear and lasting tattoo that won’t fade as quickly.
You’ll find plenty of tattoo removal creams, lotions, and magic potions claiming to make your ink disappear.
There’s no evidence these at-home methods work, though. They also come with some risk of skin irritation and allergic reaction — another reason why tattoo removal is best left to a professional.
If you’re considering your options, a dermatologist can offer more guidance on tattoo removal with dermabrasion, laser therapy, or surgery.
Getting a stick poke tattoo from an inexperienced artist may cost less, sure. But it can also hurt the tattoo industry and the experienced professionals who base their rates on:
- safety training
- tattooing experience
- years of practice
- work quality
It never hurts to keep the old adage “you get what you pay for” in mind, especially when it comes to body modifications like tattoos.
There’s a greater chance of something going wrong if you get tattooed by someone without experience. This doesn’t just apply to safety, but also to how the finished tattoo looks.
You might not have any legal recourse if you get a botched tattoo, or if you’re injured by an unlicensed, uninsured tattoo artist.
Stick poke tattoos can be beautiful, but, like any other body modification, they do come with some risk. Getting a tattoo by a trained artist who follows proper health and safety protocol is the safest way to go.
If you’re determined to try your hand at a DIY stick and poke tattoo, use quality ink and take extreme care to sterilize your equipment and workspace.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.