Arts & CultureStick and poke tattoos: Behind the newfound popularity and enduring stigmas

Stick and poke tattoos: Behind the newfound popularity and enduring stigmas

Without the hum of a tattoo machine, there’s a softer, more intimate experience to receiving permanent artwork on your skin, the stick and poke method. Despite decades of stigma, the stick and poke tattoo is on the rise for its delicate aesthetic and ode to tradition. 


An undeniable drive behind tattooing hand-poke style is a passion for the modern day culture climate, integrating historical practice into visual art on skin. The process reveals stories and images dot-by-dot, leaving a detailed imprint on the person’s canvas. 


Photo by Kate Memphis.


Before the machines

While the oldest record of stick and poke tattoos dates back to 5,200 BCE, the method extended historically across many cultures. Stick and poke was often performed as pieces of identity to various Indigenous tribes, religious groups and were also used in Chinese medicine. 


Overtime, the worldwide practice of stick and poke tattoos shifted. Historical tattooing methods included needles made of wood, bone fragments or thin sharp blades. 


By the time there were machines to create permanent body art, stick and poke still remained practical in spaces without access to them. The U.S. prison system became notorious in the 1930s surrounding stories of gang affiliation and incarcerated experiences crafted on fellow inmates by hand. Again, these tattoos followed a sense of identification and told personal stories. 


Photo by Kate Memphis.


The modern-day hand poke

When faced with extended free time, new hobbies and skills can flourish. The COVID-19 lockdowns inspired many creative endeavors, including stick and poke tattooing. With inspiration available online from Pinterest to Instagram and TikTok, stick and poke kits and materials allowed for a creative distraction from reality.


Despite today’s artists keeping the hand poke process alive and using sanitized needles,.the do-it-yourself method still carries some stigma since they often aren’t guided by licensed artists. However, do-it-yourselfers and licensed tattoo artists have something in common; their love for the stick and poke method. 

Always Tattoo Studio in Toronto.


In the studio

With stick and poke tattoo popularity on the rise in Toronto, some artists take a unique approach inside their shops. Kate Memphis, a tattoo artist and co-founder of Always Tattoo Studio says, “Tattoos can be seen as a visual marker of the luxury of freedom to create change in your body. This change of context is an exciting one, and to be part of this shift in tattoo history makes us appreciate our practice even more.”


Kate Memphis, co-founder of Always Tattoo Studio.


As a visual artist before tattooing, Kate says she was inspired by stick and poke artists like Jenna Bouma in 2014 and was intrigued by the single needle instrument. From there, Kate sought advice from fellow artists and made her passion into a career. “Hand-poke tattooing has been my full time job for a little over seven years now, and I am proud of my career’s organic and self-taught evolution,” Memphis said. 


Despite the studio’s success, it wasn’t always easy. Alongside older generations associating tattoos with crime and risky behavior, questions around hygiene, quality, and longevity of the work arised toward the handmade process. Kate says, “We have encountered and worked against this kind of stigma in the past. When our first studio formed, we were a group of five female and self-taught hand-poke tattoo artists working in a small space on Queen Street – this absolutely ruffled some feathers in the Toronto tattoo scene!”


The experience only encouraged the shop to evolve its practice and reputation over the years. “I have come to really love surprising people who are less familiar with the style of hand-poke tattoos, that they can be a beautiful, tidy and unique form of art the same as machine made tattoos,” she added. 


Positivity helps the stick and poke industry flourish. “This acceptance of style in a more mainstream way has further led to more private artist spaces being created, whose disruption to the traditional tattoo scene has benefited clients and artists alike,” Kate said.


Vonne, a tattoo artist in Toronto.


The hand-poke experience

Vonne, a Toronto-based tattoo artist working in a private studio, began her stick and poke journey in high school when she decided to tattoo herself and found passion in the artform. 


Though trained on a machine, Vonne says, “I feel like the machine creates a bit of a barrier, whereas hand-poking for me creates space to connect to the process and the client. I can hear them and talk to them and I can place every single dot with intention. It’s almost meditative or ceremonial sometimes.” The calming atmosphere allows Vonne to feel like they’re “hanging out with friends,” which could be the driving force behind the stick and poke hype.


Photo by Vonne.


The stick and poke process itself hurts less for some compared to machine tattoos and allows for more detailed, textured pieces. “I can place every single dot with intention,” she says, making meaning out of each tattoo. 


While client feedback showed Vonne stick and poke tattoos can feel more meaningful to some, she finds most value in the process and history. With an interest in learning about Indigenous practices worldwide, Vonne says, “I’m particularly interested in Indigenous Filipino practices. That’s where part of my family is from, and even though colonialism disconnected us from a lot of traditions, it’s cool to know that some of my ancestors were maybe wearing and doing tattoos by hand and that I’m connecting to them and carrying on their practices in some way.”


Photo by Vonne.


The changing landscape

New challenges arise in the digital age. The need for social media branding, or “influencerification” as Vonne calls it, adds new networking and promoting tasks to an artist’s career. “You used to need to work for a reputable shop to have a career, and I think it’s great that you can be more independent now, but it does mean that more artists aren’t being held accountable to health and safety or quality standards. Especially with self taught artists who might blow up on Instagram but maybe haven’t fully learned what goes into making a tattoo safe and long lasting,” they said. 


On a more positive note, Vonne says the changing landscape brings a variety of new hand-poke styles to the forefront. Not only does stick and poke inspire conscious creativity, it also allows people to feel present with their tattooing process and connect to the history behind the organic method. 


Loved this story? Read Supporting the Community Through Art with Camila Salcedo.



Stephanie Beattie is a Glossi Mag contributor.


In her final year of journalism school at Toronto Metropolitan University, Stephanie loves painting, Bob Dylan and caramel lattes.


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