Fourth-year new media student Fion Liu gave her first stick ‘n’ poke tattoo in 2014 on a Tinder date. Her date asked her to poke a Chinese character on him and he supplied her with sewing needles, a vodka cap bottle and India ink.
For decades this has been how most stick ‘n’ poke tattoos occur: in the spur of the moment, at parties and not necessarily in the most sanitary conditions. But there’s been a shift recently and this sort of tattooing has become a much more safe and widespread trend.
Now, Liu has turned stick ‘n’ poke tattooing into a side business. She launched the Instagram account sadstab in April of this year to promote her work after friends told her they were willing to pay. Since then she’s done 185 tattoos out of her home studio and charges anywhere between $40 and $200 for her work. She now uses actual tattoo ink and sanitized tattoo needles as opposed to the India ink and sewing needles she would get at craft stores.
Stick ‘n’ poke tattoos tend to be imperfect or wonky, but Liu’s are very precise. She attributes this to her years of experience drawing and painting.
“For me, just knowing the brushstrokes and line work are important, you need to know line work and pointillism to be able to tattoo,” she said.
Liu really got into tattooing after a stick ‘n’ poke artist saw her artwork on her other Instagram page, altpaca, and wanted her to turn some of her drawings into tattoos at the Time Festival at Fort York in 2015. The artist taught her how to stencil tattoos, how deep to poke the skin and how to sanitize the wound afterwards. Later she learned that the needle should never be put down while tattooing from Homepoke, a well-known anonymous stick ‘n’ poke artist in Toronto.
Liu’s trajectory from casual stick ‘n’ poker to a stick ‘n’ poke artist coincided with the rise in popularity of this kind of tattoo. On her sadstab account she gained followers fairly quickly, she now has over 1,500 after seven months.
“I think in a really short period of time their popularity rose,” she said. “I would say right before summer ended my Ryerson friends realized it can be easily done. I think everyone gained more knowledge of what it is because all their friends have one now.”
Word of mouth and social media is how stick ‘n’ pokes became more mainstream and how Liu has built her business. She now gets contacted by bands through her Instagram to do tattoos for them when they come to town. This past summer, she was invited backstage to tattoo her favourite band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, at Wayhome Music Festival.
“It feels really nice, like that acknowledgment. I feel like I’ve achieved something,” she said about the experience.
Stick ‘n’ poke tattoos are also a cheaper alternative to normal tattoos, which is why students opt for them. “Getting something small can cost about $100 [at a tattoo parlour] when you can get something of the same size done for $40 and the result would be the same,” said Liu. “The experience is different too. People tend to not go into tattoo parlours for how intense and scary they can be.”
This trend towards stick ‘n’ pokes has caused conflict between trained tattoo artist and people like her. “A tattoo artist was trolling me to see if I was legit, he was asking me all these questions like ‘Are your tattoo needles lead free?’ I bought them at the tattoo supply store so I trust them,” she said.
It’s disruptive in the same way Uber has been to the taxi companies, introducing a more affordable option. Criticism against stick ‘n’ poke artists usually focuses on lack of certification, cleanliness, hygiene and the fact that they’re taking business away from tattoo parlours with properly trained staff.
However, the tradition of stick ‘n’ poking is rooted in a DIY, anti-establishment culture. It started in prisons and moved its way into underground punk and electronic music scenes. Its new iteration has become much more mainstream but still maintains its roots albeit in much safer ways.
“I really like stick ‘n’ poke for its DIY style, how everything is cheap and everyone can learn how to do it.” Liu sees stick ‘n’ poking as a shareable skill, “I can show it to anyone and they can do it for themselves.”