Are ‘Stick-and-Poke’ Tattoos Really Safe? Here’s What a Doctor Says
Stick-and-poke tattoos can hurt less and heal faster, but are these machine-free, old-school tattoos actually safe? Here's what hand-poked tattoo artists and a dermatologist want you to know.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) hacks have been making the rounds. That may be thanks in part to a hangover from the pandemic, when running out for services from healthcare to hairstyling was impossible. Social media is sustaining the trend, making it easier than ever to get inspired and share your own creations—whether that’s upcycled furniture, veggies from your own garden, or a homemade face mask that’s personalized for your skin.
Even so, this has also normalized trends that are best left to experts, such as DIY orthodontics, mail order BOTOX and at-home tattoos.
Stick-and-poke tattoos, also known as hand-poked tattoos, don’t require a machine—a feature that’s made them a popular choice for at-home enthusiasts, says Victoria Hudgins, a tattoo stylist with Tattoo Glee. “But as appealing as that may sound, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a tattoo done by a reliable professional.”
What are stick-and-poke tattoos?
While this minimalist form of tattooing may seem au courant, it’s actually an ancient art form that dates back thousands of years. “[They] have a rich history, used in ancient times for symbolizing everything from religion and ceremonies to health, birth, and even death,” Hudgins says.
Stick-and-poke tattoos are done completely by hand, created through a constellation of dots that ultimately converge into lines, explains Jane Romm, a hand-poke tattoo artist and owner of Plain Jane Tattoo in Mechanicville, NY.
“Any tattoo can be hand-poked depending on the style and skill of the artist,” she says. “Every tattooer is different, though—when looking through an artist’s portfolio, check to see the style and colors they use. Some artists may be open to changing what they normally do in special cases, but many have honed their technique over time to focus on certain skills.”
Are stick-and-poke tattoos safe?
There are three main priorities when it comes to tattoo safety, according to Jennifer Baron, MD, a dermatologist in San Jose, CA: That the needle size is relatively fine, no harmful material (including bacteria) gets pushed into the skin, and the depth is less than one millimeter (mm) into the skin.
If any material goes beyond this 1mm point (or 1.75mm in the back or behind the neck), the body will react to that material, she says. A tattoo machine is automatically set to an even depth within this range, while a hand-poked tattoo relies on the artist’s hand to ensure consistency and safety. “More often, hand-poking places pigment a little higher [in the skin], but that will really depend on the person pressing the needle,” she says.
Dr. Baron says that her medical answer to the safety of tattooing is that there are times when it’s zero percent safe, to times when it’s 100% safe and performed in safe conditions. That’s why it’s so important to only get any tattoo, including a stick-and-poke, from a skilled professional.
The risks of getting a hand-poke tattoo in a sterile tattoo shop environment (inspected by the health department) should be no different than a machine tattoo, Romm adds. “However, risks are always present depending on the artist and their knowledge of sanitation practices. Be on the lookout for any red flags, such as an artist not wearing gloves, working on fabric surfaces, or not wrapping their tattoo items in barrier film.”
Do stick-and-poke tattoos hurt?
“In my experience, the main benefit of hand-poked tattoos is that they are usually much less painful than machine tattoos,” says Lauryl Sandman, a hand-poke tattoo artist based in Brooklyn, NY. “Because we are adding ink dot by dot rather than pulling lines, the method is less abrasive to the skin—and they generally take less time to heal than machine tattoos.” She notes the actual session can take longer than when using a machine.
Stick-and-poke tattoos are also generally easier to remove since the ink is placed higher in the skin, Dr. Baron says. You may only need four to six laser treatments compared to eight to 14 treatments to remove a machine tattoo—but keep in mind that it’s still an expensive and painful process. Working with a skilled artist can help ensure you get the design you want to wear for life and that it’s done (and heals) well.
Can a stick-and-poke tattoo get infected?
The risk for infection with hand-poked tattoos is the same as for machine tattoos, Sandman says. “If done in a sterile environment with clean, safe materials, the [infection] risk is fairly low,” she explains. “Aftercare is also important to lower the risk of infection.”
In general, stick-and-poke tattoo aftercare is the same as for machine varieties. “I always tell clients to wash the tattoo two to three times per day with unscented antibacterial soap and then apply Aquaphor,” Sandman says. “No swimming is allowed for two weeks after getting the tattoo, and keeping it out of the sun so that it doesn’t get burned while healing is essential.”
Romm adds a few more aftercare best practices to avoid infection: Use paper towels to dry your skin after washing (cloth towels can harbor bacteria), don’t pick at your tattoo if the skin flakes, avoid petroleum jelly, and don’t drink alcohol for 24 hours after getting a tattoo. She also recommends Saniderm bandages to protect the tattoo’s healing process. “If you notice signs of infection—such as pus, redness, swelling, or increased bleeding at the site—contact your doctor immediately.”