DIY tattoos are empowering

Stick and poke artists are making their own mark

Tattooing is getting a DIY revival.

What is currently seen as a highly skilled, highly paid art form was once a marker of the marginalized, the working class and the incarcerated. However, some artists are showing that it doesn’t need to stay that way.

“I've been poor or working class or low-income most of my life, and despite having so many ideas for tattoos and a strong desire to be covered with them, I had a really hard time prioritizing saving money for that purpose,” Rosebud, a stick and poke tattoo artist, says.

“When a friend sent me a little care package that included a small vial of neon pink ink and a few sterile tattoo needles, I felt inspired and got myself set up with some basics and started teaching myself.”

Though modern tattooing exists as a professionalized service, tattoos have their origins in community events or rites of passages. According to Lora Bambam, who works at a Winnipeg tattoo parlour, tribal tattooing is part of cultural rites that far precede modern tattooing. (Bambam’s name has been changed due to professional concerns.)

Getting stick and poke tattoos, like Jody Lee's baby dill, can be an empowering process for some. 

“It is often a ritual or rite of passage marking important life events or personal values, and I don't believe people should have to pay a lot of money to have that experience if they don’t hold the middle-class values around tattooing,” Rosebud says. “There is an incredible intimacy in tattooing someone, especially in your own home.”

Alyssa Bornn, a local artist and casual stick and poker/pokee, also senses this intimacy.

“It’s almost less about the actual tattoo as it is the act of doing it,” she says. “It’s about that moment in time, or that experience, or that relationship you have with that person.”

Stick and poke culture also allows for broader participation in an industry that is not always welcoming.

“Most of the queers/trans, femmes and People of Colour I know who have been very seriously trying to get into tattooing either can't find an apprenticeship at least in part due to racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia, or they can't stand the macho culture of whatever shops they have around them and so opt to go it alone,” Rosebud says.

However, the barriers of the industry cannot stop the drive to create.

“It's a powerful force. Inspiration and the creative obsession that motivates many folks will find some crooked, off-the-beaten-path way to get where they are going despite whatever stigmas, regulations or laws are employed to try and discourage us,” Rosebud says.

Bambam points towards women-run (Winnipeg’s Metamorphosis) and Indigenous-run (Inkdigenous Tattoo in Toronto) tattoo shops that are popping up across Turtle Island in response to the discomfort some feel in mainstream shops.

Stick and pokes aren’t inherently unsafe, but restricting safety information to within the professional sphere doesn’t do anyone any favours.

“People should have access to information about tattoo safety, whether they are ‘in the business’ or not,” Rosebud says. “It's just applying harm-reduction methods to a different field.”

“Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you want to give all your friends hep C,” Bornn adds. “Harm reduction is super cool!”

Published in Volume 72, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 5, 2017)

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