I Got The Controversial Fashion Tattoo

Photographed by Alexis Bynum.

The first stick-and-poke tattoo I ever saw was my father's, on the skin between his pointer finger and thumb. It spelled out "DEL" in blue ink — the first three letters of our last name. He and some friends did it themselves with India ink and a sewing needle in his basement when they were teenagers. He chalked it up to a silly childhood decision and around the time I was 10, he got it lasered off. As a successful businessman, he felt a tattoo was a hindrance.
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So, if someone had told me that one day I'd be sprawled across a table in a studio in Crown Heights, having a tattoo artist hand-poke an elephant onto my ribcage, I would have laughed in their face. But, that's exactly where I found myself four days after my 25th birthday on a snowy day in March. 

Some sites have reported that hand-poked tattoos, for which an artist pokes a design into the skin without a tattoo machine, using a single needle, are a new fashion trend. But, hand-poking has been around for centuries, way before Cara Delevingne or my father decided to give it a whirl. 

I've always had a bit of a rebellious streak. By 16, my friends and I were tossing around ink ideas at lunch, and I'd throw the threat of a future tattoo in my parents' faces whenever I wanted to stick it to them (pun intended). By college, I knew the design I wanted: an elephant, the animal that's always been lucky for me, and which I have many representations of in my apartment. On my 25th birthday, I decided that I'd finally shut up about it and just get the damn thing. My good friend Tara tried to convince me that I had to find an artist I loved. But, since I wanted a simple outline, I figured that I could just waltz into any shop and have them slap it on me.

But then, through some friends here at Refinery29, I was introduced to a tattoo artist on Instagram and I instantly fell in love with her designs. There was one major issue, though — she was a hand-poker. I was torn. Here was a woman whose work I would be proud to display on my body forever. Yet, a ton of questions swirled in my brain. Would it be a good experience, or would I wind up with some shitty-looking mark on my torso forever? I weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately decided to take a leap of faith and book the appointment. 
That's when things got funny. Whenever I told people I was getting a tattoo by a stick-and-poke artist, they looked at me like I had three heads. "Where are you getting it done, in a back alley?" "Aren't you afraid of diseases?" I was peppered with questions about sterilization. It all had me confused. Was it really so insane that I was choosing an alternate method by which to achieve my tattoo destiny?

"I'm not sure" why there's such a stigma around hand-poked tattoos, says my artist, who would only be interviewed anonymously because of possible backlash from the community. "I think it's because people outside the industry don't know the history of tattooing." In fact, hand-poking is how tattooing began. The first electric tattooing machine wasn't patented until 1891. Traditional Japanese tattooing, which was (you guessed it) done by hand, dates back to 5,000 BC

There is also a lot of tension within the tattoo community between pokers and those who use a machine, although my artist says that is fading. "I think it's because it's an old form of tattooing that's coming back, and that could be nerve-racking for everyone," she says. She also points out that there are some people out there who poke without any form of training. "Most of the time, it's really unsanitary and little fucks are given," she says. "It's a method people learn themselves, and they don't learn the proper information, which sucks. It's also a trend right now, and is coming back in the industry. I think that frustrates a lot of people."
Photographed by Alexis Bynum.

Yes, there are a few untrained bad eggs out there, who it would be dangerous to get inked by. But, to label an entire, ancient, practice as seedy because of that minority is unfair, especially when there are true artists — like mine — who are putting out incredible work in clean, safe environments. 
When it came time for my tattoo, I was a nervous wreck all day. I had arranged for my best friend Rebecca to meet me at my artist's private studio. Rebecca has a huge rib piece (which was done with a machine), and I knew that if things got painful, she'd make me laugh. 

The studio was serene, with lit candles. My artist unwrapped the needle, shaved the side of my ribcage, and then wiped it down with some rubbing alcohol. She then walked me over to the chair where it would all go down. Rebecca sat directly across from me on a couch that was littered with pillows. I was immediately struck by how nice it was to be in a homey studio, instead of a clinical-feeling parlor. "What do you want to listen to?" the artist asked. I asked her to put on some Joy Division.

"Ready?" she asked. I nodded and gritted my teeth. When the first poke went in, I was flooded with relief. "That's it?" I asked. "That doesn't hurt at all." My artist gave me a knowing smile. "Your adrenaline is probably crazy," she said with a laugh. According to her, the pain is different for everyone, but it's generally on par with getting your eyebrows plucked continuously. 

The entire process took about 20 minutes, during which I chatted with Rebecca about her recent trip around Europe, chuckled with my artist about dating in New York, and hummed along to the British New Wave playing softly in the background. Only when my artist started poking up toward my breasts did the pain become something I had to breathe through. Expletives flew, and Rebecca leapt off the couch and started snapping pictures of me. See what I meant about her being a good ink wingwoman? 
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I was left with a gorgeous elephant that I couldn't stop staring at — all for $100 (plus tip). My artist walked me through the aftercare process, which included washing with fragrance-free soap and rubbing with Aquaphor a few times a day for three days. Unlike my friends who'd been tattooed with machines, I didn't peel, my tattoo didn't burn, and it didn't bleed excessively. The next day, at my birthday party, I kept lifting up my shirt to show my friends my new ink. And, they were impressed. 

"I'd tell anyone who is contemplating a hand-poked tattoo to just do it," my artist says. "A tattoo is a tattoo. It's more about trusting your artist than the fact that its 'hand-poked.' If you find a hand-poke tattooer whose work you've seen and trust, jump in." I'm glad I did, and really can't imagine a better experience. 

Like my artist said, my tattoo is just a tattoo, and how it was put on my body doesn't define anything about it. What does define it is the person who dreamt it up, the care that went into it, and the memories associated with it. When my children see my tattoo, like I saw my father's, I'll tell them that mom got poked by a wonderful artist while listening to her favorite band and talking to her best friend, and that we all celebrated with tequila after the fact. I have a memory imprinted on my body forever, and if you ask me, that's pretty special. 


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Photographed by Alexis Bynum.
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