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An expert on DIY stick and poke tattoos – the dangerous lockdown trend


TextKristen Bateman

Popularised by the likes of Kaia Gerber, the aesthetic has a cult-like following, without proper hygiene and care, can lead to infection and permanent scarring

If you’ve been online at all during lockdown, you’ve likely seen at least one person experimenting with DIY stick and poke tattoos – from Instagram photos showing off new creations to model Kaia Gerber admitting she gave herself a tattoo, images of tiny hearts, dotted lines and sentimental phrases inked into skin have been everywhere on social media. 

It’s no surprise the stick and poke tattoo has become one of the most popular quarantine beauty trends. Stick and poke tattoos have an almost cult-like following. The appeal in this kind of tattoo is that they are usually small and have a handmade feel about them. They usually look a little rough around the edges and can be created with just a sewing needle and India Ink. As one of the most accessible forms of tattooing, nearly anyone can do it and kits are just a click away on sites like Etsy and Amazon. They also usually don’t last as long as a traditional tattoo, and fade out quicker. And some people even say it’s less painful than a tattoo done with a machine.

Giulia, who is based in London, is one of the many fans of the stick and poke tattoo. She originally learned of the technique when her boyfriend got a stick and poke tattoo, and then took up doing stick and poke tattoos on herself and friends, with personal advice on how to do it from tattoo artists. “I support stick and poke as it is less painful, less invasive and it heals quicker than a normal tattoo,” she says. “To do it safely you need to know the basics of hygiene and also what helped me a lot was watching a lot of videos about it, following tattoo artists that do it, try to get as much as you can from the Internet and If you have friends that tattoo that also helps.”

At the same time, as much as stick and poke tattoos are appealing for their homemade look, many professionals also caution that this is exactly the reason why you shouldn’t attempt the trend at home. “There is something very special about a stick and poke tattoo,” says tattoo artist, Jonathan Valena, who goes by JonBoy. From Kendall Jenner to Hailey Baldwin, he specialises in tiny artful tattoos. “Getting to feel every single dot gives you a sense of accomplishment and makes you feel like you’ve earned it. On the other hand, you compromise the integrity of a clean crisp outline that can only be achieved by an electric tattoo machine.

But far beyond aesthetics, while this new beauty trend coming out of lockdown may seem like one of the most exciting, it also happens to be one of the most dangerous, if not done correctly. With many people attending salon services at home while in quarantine, experimenting with body art turns out to be a lot more risky than, say, colouring your hair pink or trimming your bangs. Allergic reactions, infections, and mistakes that can take a lot of time and money to fix are all possible. 

According to doctors, ink poisoning is one of the biggest risks when trying a stick and poke tattoo at home. “At-home stick and poke tattoos are very dangerous, and carry a lot of risks,” says Dr Aragona Giuseppe, general practitioner MD. “If you use the wrong ink or do not sanitise the needle correctly, you can get an ink poisoning infection, which can unfortunately turn into blood poisoning if not treated correctly.”

Cross-contamination is also one of the biggest reasons not to try an at-home tattoo. “It is advised to avoid DIY or getting tattoos from home unless it’s from a licensed professional tattoo artist,” explains Jamie Kim MA, MS, PA-C board certified dermatology physician assistant. “They are trained to avoid cross contamination and thus avoid causing infections and spreading bloodborne pathogens such as Hepatitis B and C. Even though you might think you’re sterilising your equipment with alcohol, sometimes it’s not enough to destroy certain bacteria and viruses. There are protocols taken to make sure pathogens are sterilised before doing tattoo procedures such as using an autoclave.” The unfortunate reality is, that with DIY kits sold at stores, professional equipment such as autoclaves are not included. Most autoclaves cost thousands of pounds, and most DIY stick and poke tattoo kits cost less than £40, and include only extremely limited safety equipment.

“Tattoo artists are trained to avoid cross contamination and thus avoid causing infections and spreading bloodborne pathogens such as Hepatitis B and C. Even though you might think you’re sterilising your equipment with alcohol, sometimes it’s not enough to destroy certain bacteria and viruses” – Jamie Kim MA, MS, PA-C board certified dermatology physician assistant

With retailers selling these kits for cheap prices, some of the top tattoo artists are also against the DIY method due to the risks involved. “Believe me, I’m all about keeping the art of tattooing alive, but having easy access to the tools is very irresponsible,” adds JonBoy. “If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic we’ve learned that viruses live among us and if we’re not careful we can do more harm than not when dealing with our health. When you are working with bloodborne pathogens it’s really crucial that you are properly trained and educated to minimise any risks of spreading any kind of bacteria or viruses.”

On the other hand, some tattoo artists believe in empowering the DIY tattoo movement with the proper knowledge. “Everyone should be able to try tattooing once if they want to, and the person they’re tattooing is consenting to it,” says Lois, a professional stick and poke tattoo artist based in London. “That being said before tattooing you have to learn basic hygiene standards for tattooing to make sure you don’t accidentally give yourself or someone else an infection.”

Lois, who has tattoos both from stick and poke and a traditional machine also prefers the stick and poke method as she finds it less painful and irritating for the skin. She also thinks they heal faster than a normal tattoo. If you’re willing to take the time to really explore the topic, acknowledge the risk involved and invest in the proper equipment. “There’s lots of information online about how to properly set up to cleanly and safely stick and poke tattoo at-home, so everyone is able to do it if they want to.” 

At the end of the day, the DIY stick and poke tattoo is one of the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous beauty trends – but the reason why it’s so appealing are obvious. For the most part however, it’s undoubtedly safer to wait until lockdown is over and head to a professional to get your tattoo fix.

“Your health is far more important than any tattoo or flex,” says Jonboy. “I would encourage you to educate yourself in the risks of handling something that could potentially scar you for life. At the end of the day it’s really not worth it. Create a better memory going to a professional so you can be confident that you earned that permanent mark and you never have to be ashamed to show your friends or family a botched tattoo.” 

If you just can’t wait, you can also try a fake tattoo which will fade in just a few days. Inked by Dani and Inkbox both have literally hundreds of designs that actually look realistic and pose no risk to your health. It’s also a good way to get a sense for whether or not really you want to get a permanent piece of body art once lockdown is over.

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