The Real Story Behind Stick-&-Poke Tattoos

Stick-and-poke tattoos are having a major moment. They made their way onto Instagram feeds last year: photos of tiny, puzzled Bart Simpsons above anklebones or delicate, pointillist planets orbiting spinal curves. Style.com proclaimed them the coolest tattoo style of 2015.

These tattoos are exactly what they sound like: The technique involves dipping a sterilized needle in ink, and dotting it into the skin to create an image. It's a process that resembles particular traditional cultural tattooing practices, with a result less precise than electric tattooing. But to some, it can be more playful and authentic, even more meaningful. And unlike much of modern tattoo culture, women are at the center of the trend — and it's not the first time.

Men may dominate the history of Western tattooing, but ancient Egyptian body art — which usually consisted of dots and dashes — was almost exclusively a female practice. Some of the oldest female bodies we've unearthed carried tattoos, like that of a 2,500-year-old Siberian princess who told her story through mythical ink animals running across her shoulders and fingers.

The NYC (more specifically, Brooklyn) women profiled here are taking tattooing out of the studio and into their bedrooms. As unlicensed hobbyists (who all have other careers), who mostly tattoo friends or other artists looking to trade skills, they aren’t seeking to disrupt the industry. Rather, much like those in other slow movements, they're more interested in reengaging with the quiet, physical work behind a form we’ve mostly lost touch with.

While DIY tattoo kits probably won’t replace kombucha starters as the latest homemaking fad, the aggressive trendiness of stick-and-pokes does have its pitfalls. Many professional tattoo artists have expressed frustration over this craft going mainstream — 16-year-olds poking starfish into their thighs at slumber parties may undermine this legitimate art.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s not surprising that with the mainstreaming of tattooing — now basically a rite of passage among suburban U.S. teens — came a subtle backlash in the form of the rise of DIYers eager to practice the tactile, intimate technique.

Ahead, meet five of today's most innovative female stick-and-poke artists.

Ed. note: If you plan on getting a stick-and-poke tattoo, do your research! Home-tattooing operates in a bit of a legal gray zone, and while stick-and-pokes can be safe when done correctly, there are always risks.
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Photo: Courtesy of Andie Enomoto. Designed by Abbie Winters.
Taylor Kaclik, Cofounder Of _SCAPES NY, Brooklyn

How did you get into tattooing, and stick-and-pokes in particular?

"I have always wanted to learn how to tattoo, but didn’t have the time to apprentice while I was studying at Parsons. Post-graduation, I was looking for a hobby outside of the fashion industry as a way to recharge and stay inspired. I kind of toyed around with the idea of tattooing, but never really saw it as a feasible option. My business partner took me to get a hand-poked tattoo for my birthday last June, and later urged me to purchase the materials. Once I had the materials, I started to practice on anyone who’d lend me their skin. I am lucky to have friends who hear 'free tattoos' and come running. (Yay, art school!) I never really intended for my 'business' to grow into what it has. It’s still, and always will be, just a hobby for me."
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Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Kaclik.
What made you gravitate to this form over more "commercial" tattooing?
"I was drawn to the intimacy of hand-poked tattoos. I think my clients enjoy being able to come to an environment that is both relaxing and welcoming. We listen to whatever music they request, and there is no buzz from the machine constantly in their ear. I feel like I’m able to get to know my clients a lot better, and I'm lucky to have a lot of repeat customers. Additionally, because I use such a small needle I’m able to achieve really thin lines, which lends nicely to my style of drawing."
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Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Kaclik.
Do you have a favorite piece of work?
"I only tattoo each design one time, so I really enjoy getting to know my clients and how the pieces they choose represent certain times in their lives or aspects of who they are."
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Photo: Courtesy of Poketo.com. Designed by Abbie Winters.
Josephine Heilpern, Ceramicist, Brooklyn

How did you get into tattooing, and stick-and-pokes in particular?
"I started getting tattoos when I was really young. I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and there were no rules [against] minors getting tattoos. I've been getting tattoos since then. Stick-and-pokes just kind of happened out of boredom. I realized that I didn't need to go to a tattoo shop to get a tattoo, and it was very easy to do it myself. It was a good way for me to feel like I had control over my body and what my body felt."
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Photo: Courtesy of Josephine Heilpern.
Why stick-and-pokes?
"Tattoo shops always felt very sterile to me. We choose to mark our bodies for different reasons, but for me they are little stories of my life. I know where I was and who gave [me] each one of my tattoos, and I remember the conversations and environments that accompanied the tattoo-making. If I'm going to choose to mark my body in a way of remembering moments, I would rather not do it in a tattoo shop with someone I don't know. Hanging out with friends in living spaces felt like a more personal experience. My first stick-and-poke tattoo is on my ankle. I did it when I was in college, very late at night while bored in my studio. It was done with a sewing needle and blue India ink. I did it while I was making a drawing in the middle of November. It says, 'winter.'"
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Photo: Courtesy of Josephine Heilpern.
Have you found any differences in tattooing women versus men?
"Men and women take pain very differently. Women sit quietly, and men twitch and ask for breaks."
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Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Glynn. Designed by Abbie Winters.
Ashley Glynn, Photographer & Floral Designer, Brooklyn

How did you get into tattooing?
"I got into tattooing one summer while doing weekly DIY experiments with my good friend Adrienne. Having an art background, I'm always drawing and creating art."
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Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Glynn.
What drew you to stick-and-pokes in particular?
"Stick-and-pokes just felt like a natural medium to me... I was instantly drawn to this form of tattooing because of how organic and delicate it is. I love the homemade, imperfect quality and feel... It's body art at its purest form, without all the noisy machines and electronics."
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Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Glynn.
Do you have a favorite piece of work?
"Probably the piece I stick-and-poked on myself last summer — one of my first stick-and-pokes, of a bee. It's for my late grandmother and it turned out pretty well, despite the location being tricky to do on myself."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Howe. Designed by Abbie Winters.
Rachel Howe, Artist, Brooklyn

How did you get into tattooing, and stick-and-pokes in particular?
"I was getting back into drawing after taking a break for a few years. It just kind of happened. I learned how to stick-and-poke, got some supplies, and started giving myself a bunch of tattoos. It was an outlet for my drawings, which I didn't have a plan for; I was just enjoying drawing again. Then friends started wanting them, then friends of friends, then strangers. Stick-and-pokes are accessible. But mostly, I like how [the process] becomes meditative. The way I do it, it's a slow and repetitive process, and I get into this nice zone of not thinking and just building up a line out of tiny dots. It's sort of intimate: You're also learning about this person's skin texture and feeling, and we inevitably start talking about deeper things. It's a cool way to connect with people and then send them off with a concrete piece of that connection."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Howe.
What was the first tattoo you created?
"The first tattoo I did was a witch's hat on my friend Josephine on Halloween, a couple of years ago. She taught me what to do and let me do it right on her arm. And she gave me a matching one."

Is there a tattoo you’ve found to be extremely popular?

"People have been drawn toward the crystal ball with the 'YES' inside, and I love spreading that positive message."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Howe.
Have you found any differences in tattooing women versus men?
"Men are a lot more wimpy when it comes to taking the pain."
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