A Complete Guide to Stick and Poke Tattoos

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 15, 2018
    Last Updated: December 31, 2020

Stick and poke tattoos are on the rise, but are they really safe? One could wonder why anyone would choose this method over the standard method carried out with a tattoo gun.

There are many good reasons as to why people choose stick and poke tattoos—one of which is how inexpensive they are, but are they worth it?

What Is a Stick and Poke Tattoo?

The manual process involves dipping a sharp object into ink then poking the location repeatedly to form the tattoo. Stick and poke tattoos date back to ancient times.

Research shows that many cultures around the world have used tattoos in some way or another over the centuries. In some, it was for protection against superstitious beliefs, while others used it as a form of identification.

Tattoos in the past might not have had the same purpose as they do today. But it’s highly likely that most used a similar technique to that of a ‘stick and poke’.

Tattoos as Therapeutic Treatment

Ötzi the Iceman was discovered on the Italian-Austrian border—dating back 5,200 years. Specialists who examined him found tattoos in the form of crosses or dots at various points along his spine, lower back, and joints. Scientists concluded that the tattoos most likely served as a type of therapy to treat chronic pain—similar to the use of modern-day acupuncture.

Tattoos for Women in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian mummies have also been found with tattoos. However, one unusual thing to note is that it seemed to be only the women who had tattoos. Many have long thought that the ancient Egyptians used tattoos to mark female prostitutes and slaves, but new theories are surfacing.

Otzi The Iceman

Archeologists are now beginning to believe that the tattoos were used as a form of spiritual protection. The tattoos were thought to protect women while going through difficult stages of pregnancy and childbirth.

The mummy who changed the mindset of scientists was Amunet. Her tomb inscriptions revealed that she was a high-status priestess. Most of the female mummies found with tattoos were discovered among the royals.

The tattoos were typically placed around the abdomen, often in the form of dots in a pattern. As the pregnant belly grew and expanded, the pattern would change with it.

Tattoos were also found on the breasts and upper-thigh area of the mummies. These mummies date back to 2,000 BC. Archeologists also found tattooing tools, made of bronze, dating back to 1,450 BC.

The tattoos were most likely created by older women in the communities, as was the case in later times. They would place the tattoos on the younger women who were newly married or in the early stages of pregnancy. These tiny bronze needles were no longer than 2 inches. They often used multiple needles at once.

Similar tools were found in 19th century Egypt. In the 1830s, Edward William Lane observed the use of a multiple-needle contraption for tattooing peasants, including children. Holes would be pricked in the skin and a black substance, made from soot mixed with oil, was rubbed in.

Stick and Poke in Maori Culture

The ancient Maori tribes of New Zealand would tattoo both men and women. Men often received large spiral tattoos which started around the buttocks and ended around the knees.

In the Maori culture, the head is seen as a very sacred part of the body. Women often had tattoos around their nose and lips, some around the chin. They used the tattoos as a display of identity as well as their social status. It would also serve as a beauty treatment for women, to keep their skin looking young. The practice continued all the way to the 1970s.

Tools and Pigments

The Maori tribe used a chisel made from bone to cut shapes and lines in the skin. They would then cover the chisel in some type of pigment and tap the lines to fill them in.

Other ancient cultures used many tools, from rose thorns to shark teeth. The pigments used were often made with soot, or red ochre, which is a clay pigment. Some Inuit tribes used yellow pigments for their tattoos.

Modern Day Stick and Poke Tattoos

Today, stick and poke tattoos are an inexpensive way of getting body modifications. It’s often favored among college students who want a tattoo but can’t afford the cost.

Stick and poke tattoos usually have a minimalist design, often a meaningful word or symbol. This is due to the fact that it is too difficult to create a larger tattoo using a small needle. The tools used today are very simple. Some people use regular sewing needles, which are first sterilized using a flame.

The needle is often lengthened using a pencil. The needle is pierced into the eraser part of the pencil, to lengthen the “tool.” The further away from the needle you hold, the less pressure will be applied. This way you can better control how deep the needle goes.

The needle is then dipped in ink and pricked into the skin. For a standard tattoo, the artist will often draw the design on a transfer paper first before beginning the process. The needle has to penetrate the skin deep enough to leave an ink mark, and they have to repeat the same line several times to make it thick enough.

Expertise is required to ensure the ink pigments are inserted at the correct depth to make sure the stick and poke tattoo doesn’t fade too quickly over time.

How Painful Are Stick and Poke Tattoos?

Regular tattoos, made with a tattoo gun, are created quite quickly—depending on the size and details, of course. A stick and poke tattoo is different. Since it is done using a single needle, the process can be a lengthy one—prolonging the pain. It can also lead to a fair amount of swelling, more so than a regular tattoo.

People have compared it to being scratched by a cat while being sunburned. Others say it’s similar to being burned. The amount of pain one can endure comes down to the individual. People with low pain tolerance should steer clear of this method.

Risks & Precautions If You’re Thinking of Getting a Stick & Poke Tattoo

Many stick and poke tattoos are performed at home—mostly by non-professionals. These could be tattoo enthusiasts, although some may be professional tattoo artists with an interesting hobby on the side.

If you are considering getting a stick and poke tattoo, it is important to be aware of the risks. As with any tattoo, it does involve the use of a needle—therefore it is vital to make sure everything is sterile. There are a few dangerous diseases you could contract if the needle isn’t appropriately sterilized.

Allergic Reactions

A stick and poke tattoo will usually swell more than a regular tattoo, as mentioned previously. Allergic reactions are a possibility with anything that comes into contact with the body. Many use tattoo ink that often contains metals like titanium or lead, which some people are allergic to.

If you experience any excessive redness or swelling, I recommend you get it checked out by a doctor immediately. It could just be an extreme reaction to the ink, or it could be the start of a severe allergic reaction.

Staph Leads to Cellulitis

Staphylococcus is a bacteria which lives around us. It doesn’t usually have immediate access to our bodies, but that can change quickly if you choose to poke your skin with a needle in an unsanitary setting. Once the skin is punctured, this bacteria can come running, making its way into our soft tissue, which can lead to an infection.

Cellulitis is a common, and treatable bacterial infection. However, it can progress and become life-threatening if left untreated. The affected area will become abnormally red and swollen. It will also be hot to the touch and a fever often follows.

This condition can happen anytime there is a crack or opening in the skin. It usually occurs around the lower-leg area and feet, however, it can occur anywhere on the body. Areas that are highly exposed to external elements are particularly vulnerable.

It is vital to treat cellulitis as soon as the first signs are noticed, as it can spread through the body if left untreated. It will make its way to the bloodstream and then infect the lymph nodes. Any suspected rash which is swollen and dark red should be examined right away; time is of the essence.

Cleaning a wound regularly with an antibacterial agent and keeping it covered can help to prevent cellulitis. Keep clean gauze and bandages well-stocked.

Blood-Borne Diseases

Blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis B are also possibilities if the needle is shared. Sharing a needle is never okay. However, some people may still think it’s enough to sterilize or burn the needle before using it again. It is not—once a needle has been used this way, it should always be discarded. There are no exceptions to this rule.

HIV attacks the immune system, more specifically the ‘T cells’. These cells help the body fight infection and disease. If these cells are damaged or eliminated, the body will be at high risk of developing dangerous conditions. Leaving HIV untreated can lead to AIDS, which is the last stage of HIV. To this day there is no cure for HIV, although it can often be controlled through medication.

Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver and, unfortunately, could also be a consequence when sharing a needle. The infection can lead to other serious illnesses, such as liver cancer or cirrhosis. Unfortunately, both this and HIV affect many people worldwide, so it is important to stay well informed.

Risks of Having a Tattoo in a Foreign Country

When visiting a new country, we may have the desire to get a little closer to the culture—sometimes getting a little too close to comfort. Especially when we’re excited and not necessarily thinking clearly. Be on your guard at all times.

You can’t guarantee that countries you may visit prioritize hygiene to the extent that one would expect. It can also be difficult to know for sure whether the needle being used for tattoos is new and sterile. It could have been used before and cleaned up.

People often catch blood-borne diseases while traveling overseas. However, that’s not the only thing to look out for. A rusty needle can also lead to an infection, more specifically, tetanus. Tetanus is not that common in the U.S., but if you’re a frequent traveler, you should take cautionary measures to be on the safe side.

The bacteria, Clostridium tetani, is what causes this infection. It often happens when a person steps on a rusty nail, or in the case of tattoos, punctures the skin using a rusty needle. The bacteria can infect the blood, causing an enormous amount of pain which leads to symptoms, such as muscle spasms and lockjaw. As the jaw locks, we’re unable to swallow or even open the mouth properly.

On a positive note, there is a vaccine for preventing tetanus and it’s often recommended when traveling abroad. Children typically receive this vaccination at a young age, but as adults, it’s critical we get a booster every 10 years. This is especially important for those of us that travel frequently.


Regular tattoos have become mundane for some. Why spend hundreds of dollars for 10 minutes of pain when you could do it for less? Many celebrities, such as Miley Cyrus, have been seen sporting stick and poke tattoos.

I do recommend thinking twice before deciding on a stick and poke tattoo. The pain will not only be worse than a regular tattoo, but it will also most likely take a longer time to complete.

Stick and poke tattoos are a recipe for disaster if not done correctly. If you are going to receive one, making sure everything is sterile and unused is crucial—in order to avoid further complications or illnesses.

When you eventually go ahead with getting your dream tattoo, it’s imperative that you always follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare advice closely, and be sure to invest in a high-quality tattoo healing lotion to aid recovery.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan-friendly aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated, but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times, and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​