Are Stick and Poke Tattoos Safe?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 5, 2020
    Last Updated: December 21, 2020

Not everyone has the money for the tattoo they’ve been dreaming of, but instead of saving, some people turn to stick and poke tattoos, a traditional at home method that has many professional tattoo artists yelling, “Stop!”

As they rise in popularity, people are beginning to question whether or not stick and poke tattoos are safe. In this article, we cover the basics of hand-poked tattoos and practices to avoid.

What is a Stick and Poke Tattoo?

A stick and poke tattoo is a homemade tattoo made by poking a sharp instrument or needle into the skin coated with ink. Stick and poke tattoos are a common method for prison tattoos, but have become increasingly popular as an at-home method, instead of visiting a professional tattoo shop.

Modern electric tattoo machines penetrate more skin layers than the stick and poke tattoo, which usually fades within a few years if it doesn’t receive any touch-ups.

There are exceptions to the growing trend of DIY stick and poke. There are many professional tattoo artists trained in cross-contamination and bloodborne pathogens that specialize in hand-poked tattoos. 

Before the electric tattoo machine came into existence, many cultures performed tattooing by hand. The Tebori Tradition in Japan is one of the ancient forms of hand tattooing, and many Japanese artists still practice this tradition today.

The Risk of Stick and Poke Tattoos

Stick and poke tattoos performed at home are typically not sterile in any way, shape, or form. Perhaps someone decided on a whim that they want to give themselves a tattoo, so now they’re sitting at the kitchen table with a sewing needle, paper towel, and ink that they extracted from an ink pen.

This is not safe.

Regardless of the tattooing method, your skin always needs to be clean before starting. Professional tattooers will wipe the area down with 99.9% isopropyl alcohol before the tattoo; whatever is on top of your skin will transfer into your skin as the needle penetrates it. The table is also dirty, as are hands (with no gloves), and where has the sewing needle been?

Additionally, using any old ink you have laying around the house is dangerous. Common ink from pens and markers are not sterile and can be extremely toxic once they enter your skin.

Another unsafe problem that arises with an at-home stick and poke tattoo is a poor technique. Going too deep with the sharp object can risk tissue damage and further infection. 

Popular stick and poke blogs broadcast incorrect and dangerous advice to the internet, such as a method that involves inserting the needle you plan to use between a pencil’s eraser and metal socket to make holding it easier, and then wrapping the needle with thread, or even dental floss, so that the ink drips into the puncture as they work. This is known as the “needle and thread tattoo technique,” and it is far from sanitary.

The Safe Way to Get a Stick and Poke Tattoo

Yes, there are safe ways to get a stick and poke tattoo.

Even if you decide to take all the precautions with gloves, a sterile environment, brand-new packaged needle, and certified tattoo ink, stick and poke tattoos performed at home can still be dangerous. 

Unless you’re trained in bloodborne pathogens and cross-contamination, you won’t be aware of a potential problem until you get a staph infection. A staph infection can rapidly spread to other parts of the body and even enter your bloodstream and lymph nodes if given a chance. Alongside infections, you may not realize you’re allergic to the ink you’re using until it’s too late.

If you love the style and history behind hand-poked tattoos and still want to get one, then seek out a reputable artist. Many tattoo artists are experienced in the ins-and-outs of stick and poke tattoos and will make sure you have a safe and enjoyable experience. An added benefit is that they’re a trained artist—even if you can do your own stick and poke tattoo, are you confident in your artistic abilities?

A professional tattooer will have a sanitized and prepared environment, use the proper tools, and give you aftercare advice. Aftercare for both hand-poked tattoos and tattoos done with a gun is the same; it’s an open wound, and you should treat it as such.

Lastly, you don’t want to end up with a hefty fine. Many states and countries have different laws regarding the act of tattooing. In some places, it can be illegal to tattoo anyone but yourself, so be wary of a friend who asks you to help them with a stick and poke. You should also make sure any professional artist you consider seeing is certified.

The Verdict on the Safety of Stick and Poke Tattoos

Hand poked tattoos have been around much longer than the tattoo gun. At-home stick and poke tattoos can be extremely dangerous and risk serious infection, even if you use the correct equipment. The best way to receive a safe, hand-poked tattoo is by seeking out a certified professional who is experienced in the method.

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