Photo by Allison Trebacz

Pictured here is Dickman’s hand-poked tattoo, which is just one example of stick n’ poke art. Photo by Allison Trebacz.

For once, ditching the (tattoo) gun isn’t political

Words by Maggie Dickman

The carpet needle was starting to feel like a dagger in my side. Jab. Wince. Pause. Jab. Wince. Pause. I tried counting the number of pokes. It didn’t work. I lost track somewhere around 37. Jab. Wince. Pause.

My artist, Patricia Bordallo Dibildox, had been sticking me for a little over half an hour at this point, and because it was on my side, I couldn’t see the progress. But I could feel it. Every time that needle stabbed through my epidermis, I tried my hardest not to simply get up and walk out.

“You aren’t as bad as some people,” Dibildox said as I flinched from a poke in a fleshier area. I tried to focus on something else – the sunny day, the breeze coming through the open door in the bright yellow kitchen, the indie tunes blasting on her stereo. But the only thing I could think about was each stinging prod.

I’ve wanted a tattoo for years, but my fear of needles, the buzz of the tattoo gun and the dentist-like chair in a parlor always hindered me from facing the gun. I knew if I got the tattoo I had in mind, a “stitched” heart about three inches in diameter with a few simple lines, done in a parlor, it would take about five minutes. This was going to take a lot longer—but at least there was green tea and comfortable kitchen seating.

“Want to see how it looks so far?” Dibildox asked.

“Mmhmm,” I responded instantly. I turned to look in the mirror on the kitchen table and froze. I had four dotted lines done. Out of 16. My side was black with ink, and the sight of the partial heart on my side made my real heart sink, too. I wanted to get up and leave, but then I’d have half a tattoo. It was more than “just a stick n’ poke.” It was permanent.

A Personal Touch

Sitting in dorm rooms, apartments and suburban homes, people reconstruct a tedious art form: hand poke, or “stick n’ poke,” tattoos. The tats themselves are not complicated. All you need is a needle, ink and a patch of skin, making it easy for this type of tattoo to take over social media.

Search “sticknpoke” on Instagram, and you’ll get over 56,000 hits. Accounts on Tumblr are dedicated to sharing the best work across the Internet, ranging from simple linear patterns to intricate, larger-scale designs. Artists and amateurs alike are picking up a needle and letting the ink flow. 

Dibildox gave herself her first tattoo in a dorm room while studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. “I went out, got ink and a needle, and just made my first stick n’ poke,” Dibildox said. “After I did that first one, I kind of went crazy. It’s been three years since I did that, and I have about 10 stick n’ pokes now.”

I think it’s a lot about getting a tattoo from the people you love.”

-Patricia Bordallo Dibildox

She showed me an array of designs she created on herself, both simple, like the tiny triangle on her wrist, to the more intricate, like the Matisse cutouts on her upper thigh. She’s also given her fair share of tattoos, and in each case, it’s been about more than just the art. “They were just happy that it was a friend thing,” Dibildox said. “I think it’s a lot about getting a tattoo from the people you love.”

A prison tattoo documentary was what first sparked Dibildox’s interest in stick n’ poke. “I remember seeing a guy that had gotten a stick n’ poke, or a jail tattoo, on his eyeball,” Patricia said. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s so wild.’”

Nicole Leth is one person that Dibildox has tattooed, and for her, the decision was a natural one. “It wasn’t even something I planned,” Leth said. “We were bored after a photo shoot, and I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we go buy a Dairy Queen ice cream cake and do stick n’ pokes?’ And that’s how it happened.”

Aesthetically, Leth likes the hand-done quality. She has countless tattoos from a gun, but with stick n’ poke, it’s about the experience. “They’re very honest and raw and quick,” Leth said. “Emotionally, I like the process, too. It’s intimate, and I liked the significance of having my best friend do them. It makes them more special to me.”

Simply a Sting

Here I was, sitting in Dibildox’s kitchen, which was prepped for tatting. Paper towels, rubbing alcohol and her sketchbook were ready to go. She washed her hands and opened the pack of carpet needles. They’re thicker than the traditional sewing needle, but easier for her to grip. “They’re all new needles, by the way,” Dibildox said. The needles she used earlier on were shared – with consent, of course.

We chatted through the design I was hoping for, and she drew it out, making sure we were in agreement on size and placement. Then she poured the new, nontoxic India ink into a stainless steel bowl. She showed me the needle, clarifying that just “a tiny bit” of the tip actually punctures—just enough to get the ink under the skin.

Feeling like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, I considered walking out. But my thoughts of escape were foiled when I felt the first poke. “I usually feel a little bit of a pop when it goes through the skin,” Dibildox said.

I felt the sting – there was no going back now. “How does that feel?” Dibildox asked.

“Not bad,” I responded.

Surprisingly the first few pokes were actually fine. They simply felt like the poke from a thorny garden thistle. It was a quick sensation. The discomfort didn’t throb or linger. But the fleshier the area, the more painful it got. “OK, OK, I feel that,” I found myself saying more frequently as the minutes passed by.

Dibildox was humming along, and besides occasionally brushing back her black hair falling out of her half ponytail, her brown eyes almost never lost focus on my side.

As safe as this made me feel, my home-crafted tat didn’t come without pitfalls.

Sydni Springer, a tattoo artist at Carrie Black Tattoo in Des Moines, Iowa, warned me about the risks associated with amateur tattooing—and it’s not just a subpar tattoo. “The main difference between professional tattoos and stick n’ poke tattoos is that everything is sterile and clean,” Springer said. “Infection is the biggest risk, and your tattoo isn’t going to look as good if it wasn’t done by a professional with a tattoo machine.”

To prevent infection, artists are supposed to wear gloves to keep their hands clean. “Great,” I thought to myself. “I’m going contract some kind of disease.”

I didn’t.

All for the Art

Although the poking and prodding was extensive, time seemed to pass quickly as the second half of my heart was stitched into place. Maybe it was because I was learning to cope with the incessant stabs, or maybe it was because I saw that the end was near.

Dibildox’s hands, covered in black ink, continued to poke. Swipe. Poke. Swipe. At this point, her mom was back from work, prepping dinner for the evening just a few feet away from our tattoo set-up. Dibildox and I took a quick orange and poppy seed muffin break before finishing up, and by 3:30 in the afternoon, my arms were tired from holding them up for the entire process. But finally, after two hours, my ink was complete.

On my drive home, I felt no discomfort. In fact, by the next morning, my skin wasn’t irritated at all. Dibildox told me she’d be interested in another tattoo session soon. I didn’t die from infection, nor did I pass out from the pain.

I might just have to take her up on the offer.