The centuries-old stick n’ poke tattooing technique has skyrocketed in popularity in North America since the 1960s. These DIY tattoos are made by dipping a needle in tattoo ink and repeatedly puncturing the skin. Specifically in Montreal, stick n’ poke tattoos have become increasingly common in recent years as a less expensive alternative to tattoos executed with guns.
Stick n’ poke tattoos cater to a different clientele than traditional tattoos, not only in their affordability, but also in their unique aesthetic. Though they can differ greatly in style, stick n’ poke tattoos are often characterized by their unique intricate designs. This minimalistic aesthetic of stick n’ pokes cannot be achieved as successfully with gun tattoos.
“Stick n’ poke offers a different visual effect, as it can be more pointillist,” Toronto-based stick n’ poke artist Fion Liu, know in the community as sadstab, said. “Also, with stick n’ poke, you can control how deep the needle can go, unlike tattoos done with guns.”
Much like with traditional tattoos, the designs that clients choose vary a lot depending on the style of the artist. For example, some of Liu’s pieces employ the same image layering technique in three different colours, but each tattoo has a subject that is unique to the client.
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“For the most part, people tend to get artist’s [pre-drawn designs on] flash sheets a lot and embrace the unique aesthetic of each artist,” Liu said. “Generally stick n’ poke artists […] stick with small to medium sized tattoos.”
In addition to the aesthetic differences between gun tattoos and stick n’ pokes, the latter cut expenses for both the artist and the client. There is no standard fee, and stick n’ poke artists don’t have to give a portion of their earnings to the shop or parlour at which they’re employed, as traditional tattoo artists do. This is one of the driving forces behind the recent boom in popularity of stick n’ poke among students in Montreal.
“Stick n’ pokes are cheaper than normal tattoos,” Chloe Rowen, U3 Arts, said. “It’s convenient too. I got mine in my apartment while I was drinking and hanging out with friends. I was listening to music and had people distracting me, it was great.”
The flexibility and convenience of stick n’ poke tattoos is another key factor in their growth. If the proper tools are available, stick n’ poke tattooing can be performed anywhere, at anytime, by anyone. Liu, for example, has given tattoos backstage at concerts and in the smoking rooms at concert venues. It is also common among students to give and receive stick n’ pokes in a friend’s apartment or at a house party.
“While some sessions are planned and even paid for, it’s also common that people see my stick n’ pokes at a party, and ask for one on the spot,” Mayson Miller-Thompson, U3 Arts student and local artist, said.
For many, the idea of getting a tattoo in an unregulated space brings up issues of safety and sanitation. Miller-Thompson and Liu both stress safety as important to keep in mind, even though, according to Liu, stick n’ pokes heal more quickly and easily than traditional tattoos.
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“I’ve given around 100 stick n’ pokes, and no one has ever gotten an infection,” Miller-Thompson said. “One of the most important things to remember is to use gloves. Also, I notice that people are more comfortable when I unwrap a sterile needle in front of them.”
There is no doubt that social media has helped facilitate the surge of stick n’ pokes. Platforms like Instagram help stick n’ poke artists to develop their brand and share the specific aesthetic of their tattoos with a wider audience. Liu also attributes much of the rise of stick n’ poke tattoos across Canada to Bunz, a trade-based online community for exchanging goods and services. The site provides a platform for people to connect with stick n’ poke artists in their city, and allows them to trade items, goods, and services for tattoos instead of paying for them.
“The scene on Bunz has been spreading the word of stick n’ poke quite broadly,” Liu said. “The cheap cost and fast-paced design process are also perks that attract more people to stick n’ poke.”
Stick n’ poke tattoos provide a strong complement to the model of accessibility—financial, and otherwise—that Bunz maintains. Therein lies the undercurrent of its spread across student communities in Montreal; stick n’ poke tattoos are a source of body art that meets the limits of student wallets, and allows the comfort and flexibility to self-decorate in an environment of one’s choice.