Let’s have a tat: Stick and poke at the 5Cs

Two females display their stick and poke tattoos. The female on the left has a tattoo of the women's symbol on the side of her chest; the one on the left has a cluster of leaves on her upper thigh.
Stick and poke tattoos, shown here, are created from thousands of small dots with a single needle. They are often more affordable than conventional tattoos and can be done right in a dorm. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

As tattoos become more popular across the country, students at the Claremont Colleges are following the trend in classic college style — affordably and in their dorm rooms.

For stick and poke tattoos, which are frequently done here at the 5Cs, artists use a single needle to poke thousands of dots into skin to create a design. 

TSL spoke to two such artists, who asked to keep their full identities confidential due to concerns about legal liabilities. One is a female self-taught tattoo artist, who also works part-time at a tattoo studio in Los Angeles. The second is Max, who describes himself as an “aspiring tattoo artist” and does stick and poke tattoos as a hobby.

The female tattoo artist said via message that she got into tattooing out of “curiosity and trust from friends.” Similarly, Max started tattooing after doing a stick and poke on himself when a friend had the necessary materials.

“I have always considered myself an artist and plan on working in the arts for the rest of my life,” the female artist said.

She also said the tattoos keep her grounded in her body, which “genetically doesn’t fit a norm.” She has a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome, resulting in scarring from injuries, chronic pain and stretch marks.

“My bone structure and connective tissue are all identified medically as ‘abnormal and mutated,’ and that’s not something I can control … but I can at least make my body deviate from the norm in a way that is in my own consent and agency,” she said.

One of the female artist’s clients is Isa Berardo PZ ’20, who has eight tattoos, including one stick and poke.

Berardo expressed that stick and pokes are “just another medium of the tattooing expression,” and described their experience getting a stick and poke tattoo as “intimate and lovely.”

“I had the privilege of knowing the artist beforehand, so it’s more meaningful,” they said. 

Berardo also expressed joy about how their stick and poke turned out.

“I absolutely love it. I love the artist, and I wanted to support her art,” they said.

Isabel Navarrete PZ ’22 has seven tattoos, five of which are stick and pokes. She said via message to TSL that stick and pokes can be “so beautiful … if you’re working with someone who knows what they’re doing and has experience. The shading you get with a single needle is so unique.”

Navarrete also described her experience with stick and pokes as “lovely.”

“I actually prefer the feeling of a single needle to a tattoo gun,” she said. “It’s a slower process but less uncomfortable.”

Yet many artists and tattooed people alike expressed concern about the safety of stick and pokes.

Berardo said in terms of safety, “it was very professionally done … she had all of the things that you would expect going to a tattoo shop … It’s just a different medium of tattooing, but it was completely professional.”

Navarrete wrote that she’s been “stressed about [tattoos] getting infected, turning out poorly [or] not healing right” but has never experienced any of these issues.

Max similarly said he’s never had any of his tattoo recipients get infected. He said he uses specific, sterilized tattoo needles and isopropyl alcohol to sterilize the skin, which he said was “kind of controversial … in the tattoo world,” as some believe alcohol dries out the skin.

Concerning the stigma of tattoos, Navarrete expressed that ultimately, it’s her body and that she “want[s] to decorate it with beautiful art,” despite acknowledging the stigma from older generations. 

Berardo said the only stigma they notice is from older generations, but added, “It’s my body, and tattooing it helps reclaim the agency and power that I feel in my own skin.”

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