I got my first tattoo a couple weeks ago. It was a hand poke, which means the tattoo artist uses a needle to manually poke you and embed the ink into your skin rather than a machine. Stick and pokes have a stereotype of being a DIY thing that adolescents do at home with sewing needles, but a lot of professional tattoo artists have made hand poke tattoos their craft.
Since hand pokes are a little more controversial than their machine counterparts and there’s less info out there about them, I wanted to share my experience!
Why hand poke?
It was really the design that I wanted; if the tattoo artist, Aiyana, had used a machine I would’ve gone for it, too. But I do really love that it’s a hand poke! I’ve been drawn to the look of (professional) hand poke tattoos for a while now. I think it’s because a lot of hand pokes are minimal designs, which look so clean and simple and sweet. There’s also something so intimate about someone literally drawing on your skin, dot by dot, with their hands, and the experience was so much more relaxing than at a traditional tattoo studio.
What was getting it like?
I went to Aiyana’s home studio, which was a tiny room in her house. We listened to Mitski because I felt like that was the right soundtrack for the situation. I was accompanied by my friend Mel, who just wanted to come watch and hang out, and we all got to know each other a bit.
It took about 2.5 hours in total, but the actual tattooing took probably 2 hours. Stick and pokes take longer than machine tattoos because the lines have to be gone over a few times to make sure they’re dark and crisp.
By the end of it, I felt like I had made a new friend! Who had just spent 2 hours stabbing me gently with a needle.
How much did it hurt???
I was a bit nervous since it was my first tattoo and I chose a notoriously painful part of the body, the ribcage. But it wasn’t really that bad. It felt exactly like what you’d expect, like getting poked by a needle a bunch of times…because that’s what happening. I always stick myself with the needle when I embroider so it felt like that, except not as painful and just over and over again for two hours. If anything, it was more a test of endurance—how long could I lie there being lightly stabbed??
Some parts hurt more than others, but the conversation and sometimes me digging my nails into my hands distracted me from the pain. I found that when she went over the outline for the second and third times it hurt less, maybe because my body’s reaction was dulled by repetition. Aiyana said she thought hand pokes hurt less than machine tattoos (she has plenty of both and has hand poked herself). I wouldn’t know, but I imagine it’s like getting poked over and over again versus getting scratched over and over again.
How was the aftercare and healing process?
There was hardly any tenderness or soreness after the tattoo was done, and it healed up in only a few days. The only aftercare I did was to clean with water, apply unscented, gentle lotion (I used Cetaphil), and bandage it loosely with a sterile cotton pad and medical tape for 24 hours (switching every 8 hours or so). Technically, you should use an antibacterial soap since it’s an open wound, but…I did not. I’d advise being safe so you don’t get an infection, though!
From what I’ve heard from my machine-tattooed friends, the healing is much, much quicker and cleaner with a stick and poke. The only thing that happened was my skin flaked a little bit, but after a week everything was fine.
I would wholeheartedly recommend getting a stick and poke—from someone whose work you love and whose hands you trust, of course! Professional tattoo artists should use sterile, one-use needles (you should be able to see them unwrap the needle from its sealed packaging). When done correctly, hand poke tattoos are no riskier than machine tattoos, and the pain and healing process can be better.
The experience was as painless as getting a tattoo could be and I love the result. I loved that I got to listen to Mitski rather than the buzz of tattoo guns, got to meet Aiyana’s cat, and got to know her as a person. It felt more than just a transaction, where I paid someone to ink me; it felt like a moment of human connection was included in the whole experience and now I have a pretty little reminder of it on my body.
Would I recommend it? Heck yes! It’s really up to personal taste if you like the aesthetic or not, but the finished tattoo and the experience of getting it felt 100% me and I think that’s what matters in the end.
If you’re in Seattle and looking for a hand poke tattoo artist, check her out on Instagram @stickpokers!