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Permanent Behavior: Collective Ownership + Bodily Autonomy Through Stick-and-Poke

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Sophia Blum, a.k.a Pio Poke.  (Photo by Beth LeBarge, Design by Becca Kao/KQED)

“Permanent Behavior: Getting Tatted in the Bay,” is our four-part series, about local tattoo artists. In these stories, we dive into the permanence of ink as it resides on impermanent beings.

Sophia Blum, also known as Pio Poke, is a master of the stick-and-poke (or hand poke) method of tattooing. With a handheld needle, she creates detailed textile designs and images of feathers, arrows, birds and botanicals.

Her designs are a nod to her Berkley roots, where she grew up with an affinity for flowers. Her personal stick-and-poke style stems from her family roots.

“My family is Mennonite,” she says, “and so they do a lot of hand stitching, hand sewing stuff.”

It’s amazing what she can do with thin, black lines of permanent ink.

Pio Poke at work!
Sophia Blum, also known as Pio Poke, at work tattooing a client at Thorns Tattoo, Berkeley. (Beth LaBerge)

On top of being a skilled artist, she’s in the business of changing the industry — after recognizing unfair labor practices within traditional tattoo parlors, where owners get the lion’s share of the the revenue and workers make a small percentage, Blum organized with other artists and formed Thorns Tattoo, a worker-owned studio.

It’s deeper than aesthetics too. Blume has used her craft to support social justice causes by organizing tattoo fundraisers donating the proceeds to folks on the front lines.

Pamphlets and periodicals at Thorns Tattoo in Berkeley
Pamphlets and periodicals at Thorns Tattoo in Berkeley. (Beth LaBerge)

For our second episode of ‘Permanent Behavior: Getting Tatted In The Bay’ we talk to Sophia Blum a.k.a. Pio Poke about manually making her mark, as well as the importance of workers’ rights and bodily autonomy.




 

Read the episode transcript here. 

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Sophia Blum a.k.a. Pio Poke. 

Sophia Blum: The origins of tattooing is pretty, pretty far back. Stick-and-poke feels like more of a modern iteration, but non-mechanical or non-machine tattoos have been around for as long as like humans have been wanting to mark their bodies. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Hand poke or stick-and-poke, that style, in my head is tied to prison tatts or even punk tatts… 

Sophia: Sure, sure 

Pen: You know, like, am I wrong for having that assumption or connection?

A hand in a black medical gloves uses a needle to poke ink to a client's shoulder.
Sophia Blum specializes in hand poke tattoos. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Sophia: That’s definitely true. I mean, it’s like the simplest form, you know? So it’s just accessible. You know, all you need is like a needle or something pointy and some ink. The first tattoos that I ever made were, you know, like a BIC pen and a sewing needle. But that was like when I was like 14 before I knew what I was doing at all

Pen: Ahh. That sounds aggressive! 

Sophia: It’s not something I would recommend for anybody to do. But I feel like that, you know, like the prison tattoo or the punk tattoo, it’s just kind of what you have. It’s a DIY kind of experience. But there’s also just so many simple ways you can make a machine too.  I think that simplicity is kind of a part of all of that. But in terms of indigenous tattooing, practices like those have been around so much longer and there’s like a wide range of tools and specific practices that go into that. 

Sophia Blum at Thorns Tattoo Studio in Berkeley. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pen: Perusing your Instagram, I see that you have a lot of influence from like, nature. What’s your connection to flowers?

Sophia: I’ve been a florist for ten years now. Nope! Twelve years. Oh, time is a wild thing! I just have an affinity for plants and flowers and I’m from the Bay — I grew up like hiking, backpacking all around California.

I get all my color work done with the flower side of things, so I don’t really bring it into like tattoos or like my art. Working with flowers has taught me everything that I know about design and composition. It’s just sculptural, but it’s also ephemeral. Like, it doesn’t last. You’re working with something that is temporary, and I’ll draw that parallel with tattoos pretty often.

Sophia Blum, also known as Pio Poke, tattoos a client at Thorns Tattoo Studio in Berkeley on September 1, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pen: You said something that stuck with me: Tattoos essentially don’t last forever. When I think of tattoos, I think like, that’s probably the most permanent form of art that I can think of — what lasts longer than tattoos, you know? And so why? Why are they impermanent?

Sophia: To me, I think of it in the opposite sense. Most art lasts so much longer than your body does. Like a painting lasts for hundreds of years. A piece of sculpture will last way longer than the artist itself will last. A photograph lasts for a really long time. But you only last as long as you last. Tattooing is essentially just like decorating your vessel, and that can end at any moment. So to me, tattooing is one of the most temporary art forms. 

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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