Out of the parlor: the marginal trend of homemade tattoos

Making your own tattoo in the comfort of your home has never been easier. No matter if it is risky, the trend of « stick’n’poke » seems to be more about the experience of self-tattooing than safe-tattooing.

My father once told me that he made his tattoo himself. Drawn on his forearm, a heart pierced by an arrow atop of which are written his name initials. Who could have predicted that this permanent drawing, made only with ink and a sewing needle by a teenager in the 70s, would be a trend of 2016?  

As painful as it looks, « stick’n’poke » tattoing is a growing trend among teens and young adults © Dandi Casenfoot

Back to basics

The act of self-tattooing is not new in itself. Tattoo artists often start to ink their own body before doing it on others. The specificity of homemade tattoos however, is that they are made in an amateurish way without any proper safety conditions. This do-it-yourself approach to tattoos called « stick’n’poke » is based on the idea of giving oneself (or giving a friend) a tattoo with a very basic equipment.

Inspired by the traditional way of making tattoos like the Japanese tebori method, which uses a row of needles inserted in a bamboo to ink the skin, sticking and poking is a non-electrical process.

The technique is pretty simple: taking a needle (or actually any sharp object), dipping it into India ink and jabbing your own skin dot-by-dot with it. The result? A very personal tattoo placed on the feet, the ankles, the wrists or the fingers. They are not particularly made for aesthetic purposes, and the designs of these DIY tattoos are quite minimalistic. They are not meant to be highly visible: letters or a smiley on the thigh, a cross near the toes or little dots in-between the fingers.

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The new rebel tattoo?

In the modern era we live in, having a permanent drawing is no longer as subversive as it was. In this context, being inked in the controlled environment of a tattoo shop has lost its rebellious significance. It is just another act of consumption, not so different from other decorative or styling choices.

Rachel, a stick and poke addict, finds that the meaning of tattoos in the Western world has changed.

Tattoos have become kind of clean. If there’s a bro with full sleeve tattoos, he doesn’t look cool or tough, he doesn’t look like any of the things tattoos used to mean. Tattoos used to send a message. Maybe, like, “I’m a scary person”, “I’ve done some bad things”, or “I do some bad thingsRachel told GQ.com.

She added that these do-it-yourself permanent drawings are a sort of new transgressive way to get a tattoo.

Tattoos were telling the world what type of person you are, someone who doesn’t give a fuck or isn’t trying to have a job. Now that message is gone. And that’s why stick and pokes are popular. It still has a bit of an underground feel. You had to seek something out. You didn’t just go to a shop and buy it”.

Getting a “prison style” tattoo takes longer and can cause more pain than a classic tattoo © Kristina Loggia

In a personal interview, Antonio, 32, said that he started to give himself « stick and pokes » when he was underage.

Tattoo parlor is the reason for which I started s’n’poking myself, I was under 18, I was without money and my parents hated tattoos…

Tattoo parlors ask you for your parents’ permission, money and they always look too dark an unwelcoming”.

With « stick and poke » tattoos, going under the needle takes on a whole new dimension. This cheap and rudimentary tattooing method, which seems to mainly attract teenagers and youngsters in college, is clearly more about the experience than the result itself.

It’s like proving to yourself that you can do whatever you want

Modifying one’s own skin through the self-infliction of pain provides a way to ground a sense of self. It gives young people feelings of greater control over their own body.

Once you start you can’t stop. It’s like proving to yourself that you can do whatever you want and you don’t have to explain to others why” adds Antonio, whose « stick and poke » tattoos bear a more personal significance than his other “proper” tattoos.

It is an intimate and personal body experiment visible on the social networks, where a community of « stick’n’poke » practitioners share photographs and tutorials. Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram or YouTube are the sites where the trend flourishes and spreads. A trend that is far from being completely safe.

Inking at your own risks

No need to be an expert to understand that at home inking does not meet the requirements of the sterilized tattoo shop. Although every online tutorial mentions the importance of using safe tools, precautions might not have always been taken when giving or getting such tattoo.

Crow B. Rising, a professional American tattooist, warns against the dangers of buying stick and poke tattoo kits: “There are a lot of reasons not to do your own tattoo. Just because you are able to buy a kit does not mean you have artistic ability or technical acumen to tattoo, or that you have the knowledge necessary to prevent the spread of not-so-trendy blood-borne pathogens”.

Health concerns shared by the Food and Drug Administration. Anyone who craves for a « stick’n’poke » tattoo should be aware of the risks involved. “Injecting contaminated ink into the skin, using contaminated needles or poor site preparation may result in infections at the site of the tattoo that can spread throughout the body via the blood, a condition known as sepsis”, FDA press officer Lauren Sucher told The Daily Mail.

These infections can be severe and require extensive treatment with antibiotics, hospitalization, or surgery. Symptoms of illness after receiving a tattoo include redness, swelling, itching or blemishes in the tattoo, or pain in the tattoo that does not go away”.

Think before you ink: stick and pokes are not the safest way to get tattooed. From stickandpoke.tumblr.com

More than a fashion choice, the painful acquisition of self-made tattoos is embedded with a particular sentimental attachment that comes out of the process. Going back to the roots of inking, the « stick and poke » phenomenon is not so much about beauty but more about authenticity.  

Cécilia Naquin

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