Disclaimer: No doctor in their right mind would say stick and poke tattoos are a great idea, so we're obliged to tell you that you shouldn't try this at home. But if you're going to do it anyway...
For most people, the goal of receiving any tattoo is making sure it's not going to suck. This deeply rational approach to body art revolves around the principal that, if something's going to be on your body forever, it should probably be aesthetically pleasing and not something that brings you shame every time it's out in public.
That's one school of thought.
The other far less sensible option is to hammer ink into your own body at home (yes, like they do in prison) and hope for the best. Sound crazy? It kind of is. But there are more people doing this than you probably realize -- including famous ones. Harry Styles? Wrist covered in homemade nonsense. Kesha? Seems to get a new one every week. Florence Welch? Most of her tattoos appear to be DIY. Miley Cyrus has a smiley face on her ankle that her friend Cheyne Thomas did, and we imagine it's not alone. Jemima Kirke is both a giver (she's tattooed her Girls co-star Lena Dunham) and a receiver. Ireland Baldwin -- daughter of Alec -- has a surprising number too.
The stick and poke tattoo makes a loud, bold, and messy declaration to the world that you are a human who lives in the moment; an individual who takes more pride in spontaneity than planning ahead; a person who might just have a moderate disregard for your own well-being.
If you want to see a professional tattoo artist get angry -- or at the very least moderately irritable -- ask them what they think of stick and pokes. Most of them abhor them, quite justifiably, on general principle, not just because of the inherent hygiene hazards home tattoos pose, but also because it takes a craft they have been perfecting and advancing for decades, and reduces it to sloppy experiments conducted with the most primitive of tools.
This is why, when Kesha gave her right wrist a "whale shark blob whatever," she captioned the Instagram photo (below): "I hope my hand doesn't fall off."
While you do raise your risk of infection, and you are almost guaranteed a bad tattoo, there is also something to be said for the freedom, frivolity, and simplicity of the stick and poke. Friends giving each other DIY tattoos is one of the single greatest bonding experiences two people can have. Aside from anything else, marking a specific minute in time, right then and there, while you're swept up in a moment, is not possible to do professionally if it's three in the morning, or you're poor, or there's a waiting list at the tattoo shop. Sometimes, you just cannot wait. Which -- full disclosure -- is why the inside of my right leg currently looks like this:
Ugly as hell, right? Well, to you maybe. To me, it looks like the eight beautiful people who were willing to sit for an absurdly long time, leaving a literal mark on me, dot by dot. It looks like a few parties, a trip to Paris (spot the Eiffel Tower!), a band from Canada, and the night before I moved to America. It looks like love and punk rock and fun and too much alcohol. The nights I got each of these stupid hieroglyphics are now entirely unforgettable. I regret nothing. And no, I've never had an infection -- because cleaning needles is in no way a complicated or difficult endeavor.
Stick and pokes, as silly as they can be, have very real value in terms of making memories and of marking special nights / people / places. Sometimes, the decision of two people to tattoo each other at home can mark quite a serious permanent commitment. One of the most important people in my life decided a few years ago that the best way to demonstrate that the feeling was mutual was by allowing me to put my name on his shoulder. I still count it as one of the most spectacular things anyone has ever done for me.
There are a variety of guides online that will tell you how to stick and poke -- and most of them make it sound far more complicated than it needs to be. Sure, if you are so inclined, you can carve the side of a pencil out and tape a needle into the crater so you have more control over what you're doing. And yeah, you can wrap your needle with thread because it's absorbent and offers some grip (I actually find the thread just makes everything ten times messier, but you do you). Hell, if you really want to take the fun out of stick and pokes entirely, you can buy an actual "Stick & Poke Tattoo Kit" -- an item that misses the point of DIY tattoos almost entirely.
Truthfully, the only thing you need to do a stick and poke is a clean needle, a bottle of India ink and a pile of patience. The steps go like this:
1. Sterilize needle (with boiling water, fire, alcohol -- whatever you've got on hand)
2. Insert needle into ink
3. Insert inky needle into skin until you feel a slight pop
4. Repeat until finished/ bored
5. Follow the same hygiene instructions you would with a professional tattoo
That is literally it.
I have had people tattoo me using nothing more than a sterilized sewing needle and a desire to get the job done, so trust me when I say this doesn't have to be complicated. That, friends, is the true beauty of the stick and poke. On a couple of occasions, I've got lucky and the person applying the ink has used a professional needle, handheld, like this:
An essential thing to note is that it should never be assumed that stick and pokes are a decent substitution for a professional tattoo; the two do not even belong in the same category. If you want a good-looking, long-lasting tattoo, pick a style, find a reputable artist who does that style and understands your vision, then pay them whatever goddamn money they ask for, because this is one of the most permanent investments you'll ever make.
Stick and pokes, on the other hand, are small -- they have to be because they take so long -- and light-hearted and, yes, just a little bit reckless. They're not for everyone because, if you do take the plunge, in all likelihood, the end result won't be the prettiest thing that ever happens to your body. Frankly, as soon as you have an unqualified person looming over you with a sharp object, you'll know in your gut if this is a step you want to take or not.