Section: Arts

On pins and needles

On pins and needles

by Tyler Raso

When it comes to getting tattoos, many feel restricted to expensive parlors. There is an alternative, however, that requires only a do-it-yourself attitude, about $20 for materials and a tolerance for pain. A subset of Kenyon tattoo enthusiasts enjoys using the stick-and-poke technique, a cost-effective method students can practice in their own dorm rooms.

Stick-and-poke can considered a form of skin pointillism — the puncturing of the epidermis with an ink-tipped sewing or tattoo needle — and is most certainly not for the faint of heart. A few Kenyon students swear by it, such as Margaret Athol ’19 and Kyla Spencer ’18, who have both given themselves stick-and-poke tattoos. They use stick-and-poke to take additional ownership of their bodies and the art that adorns them.

“I see tattoos and body art as something you do for yourself, and so doing my tattoo myself was just that extra bit of doing something because I wanted to,” Athol said.

Both Athol and Spencer taught themselves the stick-and-poke technique through YouTube tutorials and explanatory blog posts. Both students researched and deliberated for a few weeks before they felt comfortable putting ink to skin. Athol has one tattoo, which she gave herself in September. Spencer is more of a veteran, having designed and applied several tattoos herself. Since last October, she has been giving her friends tattoos free of charge.

Stick-and-poke is most appropriate for minimalistic designs. “They’re usually pretty small and simple,” Spencer said. “Just shapes and lines and stuff. Little decorations.”

Just like its products, the process of stick-and-poke is simple: First, sanitize the skin area with rubbing alcohol or anti-bacterial soap. Then, outline the design on the skin in pen or pencil. Take out a new sewing or tattoo needle and insert the hooked end into the space between the eraser and the metal at the top of a pencil far enough for it to be stable. Use a flame to disinfect the needle, and give it a minute to cool. Then, wrap the needle with thread until only the tip is exposed. Dip the needle in ink and start poking along the outline, puncturing only as far as the epidermis. The poking process may require repetition depending on how dark the ink is on the surface. The finished stick-and-poke calls for the same care as a professional tattoo: Keep it dry and out of the sun for about two days.

Even with the accessibility and convenience of stick-and-poke tattoos, Athol said they should not be taken lightly. “It shouldn’t be done on a whim,” Athol said. “It is still a tattoo.” If done correctly, stick-and-poke tattoos are just as permanent as traditional tattoos, requiring only occasional touch-ups. Certain designs, however, should be left for the parlor. Anything elaborate or overly delicate should be taken to a professional equipped with more sophisticated tools and experience, according to Graeme Taylor ’18, who has 19 tattoos, all but one of which were done in a professional parlor. A significant reason people — college students, especially — might be reluctant to go to a parlor is the price; depending on the desired size and intricacy, tattoos can cost anywhere between $50 and $300.

Professional parlors, however, guarantee quality. “Don’t do [stick-and-poke] if it’s going to be something that you want to look nice,” Taylor said. “Especially don’t do it when the case is that it’s just your friend that people say is good at stick-and-poke.” He mentioned a hometown friend who built his own tattooing machine — Taylor let his friend tattoo him, but made sure it was inconspicuous. A risk of friends making tattoos is that the quality will be poor, according to Taylor.

DIY stick-and-pokes come with their own health risks. “You’re going to someone that tattoos out of their basement, someone that is just going to give you a stick-and-poke while you sit on the same bed in someone’s dorm — that’s where you can see a much higher risk coming up,” Taylor said. He added that stick-and-poke tattoos done by a professional artist who knows how to sterilize equipment properly lowers this risk.

Taylor said paying more for a parlor tattoo is worth it, despite stick-and-pokes’ typically lower prices. “The prices are a lot cheaper, but it costs a whole lot more to get a cheap tattoo, regret it and then go pay to have something done over it,” Taylor said.

Elana Spivack contributed reporting.

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