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Cheap, Dirty and Punx Ink

Stick ‘n’ poke tattoos aren’t only done by people behind bars – in fact, they’ve been around for centuries

There’s going to be blood. To keep things clean, 23-year-old Stephanie lays a blanket on her cold garage floor as she preps her supplies for tonight’s victim — needles, washcloths, soap and ink. Stephanie is about to give someone a stick ‘n’ poke tattoo, right here among the old bikes, the dusty couches and her artwork. “I think [stick ‘n’ poke tattoos] are a more personal experience as opposed to going into a shop and having a stranger do it,” she said. “It’s an experience I can share with friends.”

Stephanie has been tattooing herself and her friends for about five years now in her small town of Chillicothe, IL. She has done at least 30 tattoos, the first being a dead bird on her forearm done with India Ink and sewing needles. From there, she’s done a rabbit skull, a whale, a Mullein plant and the footprints of a male whitetail deer. But she doesn’t really have a favorite. “Usually, the most recent tattoo I do is my favorite because you learn something new every time,” she said.

As she continues preparing her supplies, tonight’s victim says he wants “PUNX” tattooed above his left eyebrow to compliment the razor blade tattooed over his right. Stephanie has never tattooed someone’s face before, but has no problems giving it a try.

Stick ‘n’ pokes are most notoriously known as the kind of tattoos people give each other while in prison, but they’ve been around for thousands of years in hundreds of cultures. In 1991, a 5,000-year-old tattooed “ice man” was discovered on a mountain between Austria and Italy. In Ancient Egypt, women were tattooed as a ritualistic practice. In New Zealand, the Maori created a tattoo called “Moko” where they carved skin using wood. And in Indonesia, traditional tribal tattooing is still practiced today the same way it was thousands of years ago.

Dan Koenig, a tattoo artist in Des Moines, IA, has two stick ‘n’ poke tattoos done in the traditional Japanese style. “It wasn’t so much about the stick ‘n’ poke, it was about getting tattooed in the traditional Japanese way,” he said. “It was a privilege and an honor for me. The other tattoo that I have that’s a stick ‘n’ poke is one on my ankle. I got that from a guy named John Carlo near Milan, Italy. We did it at about 3 o’clock in the morning in his apartment. I tattooed him and his wife. And then when we were all done I said ‘Hey man, I want to get one of yours.’ So I went for it and got one from him.”

In America, tattooing is mainstream; it’s no longer limited to the underground. Now, even straight-laced business people and their moms have a tattoo of a Chinese character or a loved one’s name tucked away on their shoulder. Tattooing has lost the sense of rebellion it once held.

But stick ‘n’ poke tattooing is a way to keep that rebellion alive. “I wouldn’t say I recommend it, but at the same time I see value in it. I see honor in it,” Koenig said. “I don’t recommend it because I don’t think that people understand the permanence of it enough to pick a good spot where they are going to be able to live with it. I think all of that stuff is really important and by going to a professional tattooer, you’re going to get all the different options in terms of where to get it. It’s going to look right. It’s going to function. But all of that stuff is against the whole thing of saying, ‘Hey, fuck you, I’m getting tattooed.’”

But that’s just the culture here in the U.S. In Europe, there are no “stick ‘n’ poke” tattoos. Instead, they are called “hand-poked,” “handwork,” or “machine-free” tattooing. And it’s not an act of rebellion; it’s simply another form of tattooing. Boff Konkerz has been a London-based machine-free tattoo artist for 10 years. He’s fully licensed and travels to tattoo conventions often. “In the states it's a kind of a DIY thing,” said Konkerz. “In Europe, it's just another, admittedly smaller, kind of tattooing.”

Modern stick ‘n’ poke tattooing reflects the methods used thousands of years ago. Usually, a sewing needle is attached to a pen and wrapped in thread so that the artist can get a firm grip and the needle won’t go too deep in someone’s skin. The needle is then dipped in India Ink and repeatedly poked into the skin. Multiple tracings are usually required to make the tattoo dark enough.

This is how Stephanie used to do her tattoos before she upgraded and bought real tattooing needles and ink. But the “do-it-yourself” aesthetic is still there. As Stephanie sketches the tattoo outline on a sheet of notebook paper, chatting can be heard from her five friends who’ve come to watch and hang out. Conversations vary from “fuck the police” to starting a sideshow freak show to what the inside of a kangaroo pouch looks like.

All of them look roughly the same: worn black clothes, tattoos, boots, and patches with the names of punk bands or sayings such as “Never been caught” stuck to their studded jackets. And it makes sense. Since punk’s beginnings in the late ‘70s, stick ‘n’ pokes have become extremely popular because of their DIY nature and rough aesthetics. Low and middle class teenagers also use stick ‘n’ poke as a way to get a free tattoo underage. “I think the price is right for them, and I think it’s really all about taking charge of your body,” said Koenig. “It’s like saying ‘Hey, this mine and this is what I feel like doing. Fuck you.’ It really is a ‘fuck you’ statement.”

Another stick ‘n’ poke artist and friend of Stephanie’s, 22-year-old Mitch, has 18 stick ‘n’ pokes, including the skull of a rabbit, a small anarchy sign, and three lines on his ear. “Usually it’s stuff you don’t want to pay a shop to do because they usually have a minimum price,” he said. “I don’t want to pay 50 dollars for three dots under my eye.”

The U.S. government has stepped in to regulate professional tattoos and stick ‘n’ pokes alike. And there’s a reason for that. “I think there are some health issues and sterility is a problem,” said Koenig. Any tattoo has the risk of infection, but DIY ones done with a sewing needle in someone’s basement pose a greater threat—like the time when 44 people across Ohio, Kentucky and Vermont developed skin infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a staph germ that is spread through skin-to-skin contact, such as tattoos. Or when a woman from Springfield, Mo. was hospitalized after an illegal tattoo from a door-to-door tattoo salesman. Or, in October, when an 18-year-old from Oregon was arrested for giving illegal tattoos to underage students who may have been infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph bacteria.

But to Stephanie and Mitch, stick ‘n’ pokes aren’t a lot more dangerous than getting a professional tattoo—as long as the person is sterile and careful. “Don’t ever reuse needles,” is Stephanie’s golden rule when tattooing. And even with government regulation, stick ‘n’ pokes still remain popular through the countless blogs and how-to YouTube videos created.

In Europe, professional machine-free tattooing is actually safer. “And that's not just my opinion,” Konkerz said. “Because there's less trauma to the skin it bleeds a lot less. Therefore, there are fewer cross contamination issues. Also, as the skin is not damaged as much, there is less chance of infection. The faster healing time means there's less that can go wrong after the tattoo is finished.”

Stick ‘n’ poke has been criticized, not just for the possible dangers but also for its rough, unprofessional look. But that’s the way many people like it. “The problem is, it's tattooing. It's subjective,” Konkerz said. “There's not even a common language to discuss the issue. Who can say what's ‘cool’ or ‘shit’? Who can judge? If the person wearing the tattoo loves it, then what is quality and how do you quantify it? The only thing we can measure is safety. If it's safe you can't judge it, regardless of whether it's done with or without a machine, or if it's done with or without a license. If it's safe, it's ok. If it's not, it's not ok. That's the bottom line.”

Once the prepping is done, Stephanie takes out a tattoo marker and draws the outline on the victim’s face. He doesn’t look the least bit nervous. She asks him to lie down on the dusty couch to begin the procedure. There is no sound from a tattooing machine during a stick ‘n’ poke. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. Stephanie and Mitch describe stick ‘n’ pokes as being three times more painful than professional tattoos.

“You used to be a real asshole about it,” Mitch said to Stephanie. “You used to poke me with the needle really hard.”

She laughs. “Yeah, but I stopped when you complained,” Stephanie said.

There’s no sign of pain during this tattoo besides the red flushing the victim’s cheeks. There’s no real blood or scarring. And it only took a few tracings to complete. The tattoo itself is so well done that it’s hard to tell it wasn’t done by a machine. But the roughness gives it away.

When asked if this was her new favorite tattoo, Stephanie smiled and replied, “Lettering on a face? Hell yeah.”


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