Getting a stick and poke tattoo is a brutal process. A tattoo gun can penetrate the skin around 100 times per second, according to Medical News Today. But to do a stick and poke, the tattoo artist has to stick the needle in by hand, slowly and carefully. If they accidentally stick it in too far, you can expect to see a lot of blood.
Stick and poke tattoos have been a staple of punk and DIY scenes for as long as punk and DIY scenes have existed. They’re a cheap and easy way to alter one’s body. A professional tattoo can cost hundreds of dollars. All you need to do to get a stick and poke is buy a needle and some ink.
Rowan Giffel, 23, started doing their own stick and pokes when they got bored during lockdown. (Giffel uses they/them pronouns.) They’re immunocompromised and can’t leave the apartment much. But luckily, they had ordered needles and ink online right before the COVID-19 outbreak started.
“My first tattoo during lockdown was a glyph for Jupiter, the ruling planet of Sagittarius,” said Giffel, referring to their astrological sign. “Then I did a ghost on my finger. And now I have four ghosts on my fingers.” They held up their hand to reveal cartoon ghosts on each knuckle.
Giffel initially ordered tattoo supplies because they get really anxious going into tattoo shops. They also said that it feels good to put their own art on their own body.
“Most of the queer people that I hang out with like stick and pokes,” said Giffel. “And I definitely have some gay tattoos on my body.”
Giffel flashed a tattoo of an inverted cross on their belly as an example. “It’s not because God made me gay. It’s because he made straight people,” they laughed and then paused. “That’s not true, that’s not true.”
Since lockdown started, they have tattooed their several partners and their roommates. Every single person they’ve tattooed so far has been gay or trans. Giffel has tattooed them with daggers, mushrooms, frowny faces and smiley faces, a Pac-Man ghost and more.
“I had to buy sterilized needles and more rubbing alcohol and stuff,” said Giffel. They’ve tattooed about five different people now. On their bed, they had multiple boxes containing hundreds of needles, some big and some small. Giffel said that the size 9RL hurts the worst, but you have to use it to get thick lines.
Emily Anderson, 25, one of Giffel’s partners, has also given and received stick and pokes. She pointed at a tattoo of a dagger on her foot and said, “This was the worst for me. The foot. It’s terrible.”
Despite the pain, Giffel said that the stick and pokes are worth it. “Because I’m trans. Dysphoria’s bad. I don’t have a lot of control over my body in a lot of ways,” they explained. “Because of money. Surgeries, hormones. Being able to put tattoos on my body is something that I finally do have control over.”
Anderson said she also likes how the tattoos lend her a sense of control over her body. “But my tattoos don’t have a lot of meaning behind them. I just like how they look,” said Anderson. “These are beautiful things, and I like having them on my body.”
While I talked to Giffel, they were tattooing a tarot card named The Fool on their thigh. They said that this particular tarot card has personal significance. “I read this card in a queer way. The Fool represents naivete and being reckless and probably dumb. But it’s also about preparing for a new journey and preparing for change.”
Giffel said that they get frustrated with trying to be consistent. For example, they said they hesitate to change their name — even though they want to — because it causes confusion with relatives and friends.
On their arm, Giffel has a stick and poke of a dandelion. They said that that tattoo is probably their favorite. For a reason. “They literally grow from people’s wishes. You blow the dandelion spores, and then they sprout into beautiful, yellow, resilient things,” said Giffel. “And they look so happy. I want to be more like that.”