A Guide to Getting a Stick and Poke Tattoo: Pain, Aftercare, and More

  • A stick and poke tattoo is applied with a single needle that is dipped in ink.
  • It is supposedly less painful than a regular tattoo, but could fade more quickly.
  • You should never try doing an at-home stick and poke, since you could get an infection.

Hearing the term “stick and poke tattoo” might make you think of high school or college kids messing around with needles and ink – but this method is performed safely and professionally by tattoo artists around the world. In fact, some tattoo artists specialize in this done-by-hand style.

Most people may associate tattoo machines with getting inked, but stick and poke tattoos, sometimes called hand poked tattoos, are increasingly gaining popularity and are safe to get from trained tattoo artists in reputable tattoo studios. 

Here’s everything you need to know about stick and poke tattoos. 

What is a stick and poke tattoo?

“Hand poked tattoos are just another form of tattoo that doesn’t require electricity or any form of machinery, and trace back to ancient, original tattoo methods,” says Aiyana Inatsu, a tattoo artist who exclusively performs stick and pokes at Irezumi Studio.

An artist creates stick and poke tattoos by simply using a needle to deposit ink into the skin. “It uses the same needles as tattoo machines, and ink is manually inserted into the skin rather than electrically via machine,” Inatsu says.

Here are the differences and similarities between machine tattoos and stick and poke tattoos:

Ultimately, the decision to get a stick and poke tattoo versus a machine tattoo comes down to individual preferences. Another thing to consider is noise and comfort level if they have sensory issues with loud noises. 

“Something my clients have appreciated about this method is that it’s practically silent compared to the potentially anxiety-inducing loud buzz of a tattoo machine, and that it hurts much less. A lot of my clients have fallen asleep during their sessions or at least are able to hold a conversation from lack of noise and the manageable pain level,” Inatsu says.

Can I do a stick and poke tattoo myself?

While it’s possible to do a stick and poke tattoo yourself (or have a friend do it for you), experts definitely don’t recommend it. Tattoo artists and medical professionals alike suggest that you leave the stick-and-poking to the pros. 

“Tattooing should be done under sterile conditions by a trained individual who understands the potential risks and how to avoid them. The correct equipment and ink should be used as well to avoid complications,” says Dr. Jeremy Fenton, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. 

Unclean surfaces, equipment that isn’t sterilized, and incorrect methods of tattooing can all introduce the risk of infection.

Fenton says in serious instances, you can contract HIV, Hepatitis C, or Hepatitis B from needles or tools that are being used on multiple people.

“I’ve heard of people using and — more alarmingly — reusing the wrong ink, wrong needles, or other supplies on themselves or others, which is just a recipe for disaster. Best case scenario, you have an ugly tattoo that either fades with time or completely blows out depending on how light or heavy-handed your friend is. Worst case is infection,” Inatsu says.

How getting a stick and poke tattoo works

Every artist may operate a bit differently, but Inatsu says the general process of getting a stick and poke tattoo should be as follows:

1. The artist disinfects the skin.

2. The artist applies a stencil of the design to the skin

3. The client gets comfortable on a tattoo bed or chair (depending on the placement of the tattoo).

4. The artist gets to work. “It’s just ongoing (relatively) gentle pokes with occasional breaks to dip for more ink or wipe away excess ink so we can keep track of the stencil,” Inatsu says.

5. The artist cleans the area and wraps it up.

Just as every tattoo artist’s process is slightly different, the aftercare instructions may differ, too. Tattoo aftercare isn’t one-size-fits-all. 

Inatsu recommends protecting your fresh tattoo with a film for the first few days. “I personally use Saniderm, a latex-free, flexible, transparent film used to protect your tattoo against your own clothing, pets, and other bacteria,” Inatsu says. 

It’s waterproof but still lets your skin breathe, allowing it to heal. For simpler linework tattoos, Inatsu recommends leaving the film on for three to five days.

But if you’re getting a thicker, colored-in tattoo, you will need to take it off after the first day when it fills with blood and inky plasma, clean the area, and replace with a new Saniderm sheet for three to four more days, Inatsu says.

Other artists or dermatologists may recommend leaving the tattoo covered for a set amount of time and then gently cleaning the area with antibacterial soap and water, following up with a moisturizer like Aquaphor.

Your best bet is to ask your tattoo artist what they recommend for your personal situation, and they can give you aftercare directions tailored just for you. It’s crucial to follow these aftercare instructions so that your tattoo heals beautifully and doesn’t get infected. 

Regardless of the type of tattoo, Inatsu says you should avoid sun exposure and swimming for two weeks after your appointment – and that you should always wear sunscreen on your tattoo forever to keep it looking its best.

Healing process: What’s normal and what isn’t

As your tattoo heals, keep an eye on it. The day of and days after your appointment, Fenton says it’s normal to notice:

  • Mild swelling and redness (your body’s natural response to injury) 
  • Mild oozing, due to the inflammatory cells and plasma that might come to the surface
  • Mild scabbing
  • Dry skin (especially around three to five days after the tattoo) 
  • Mild Itching 

However, it’s important to also look out for warning signs that could indicate allergic reaction or infection. Even if you have a tattoo done professionally, there is a small risk of infection, especially if you do not follow aftercare instructions.

Fenton says some potential signs of infection or allergic reaction include: 

  • Blistering 
  • Redness that persists and worsens 
  • Tenderness that persists and worsens 
  • Pus drainage 
  • Excessive itching
  • Excessive scabbing 
  • Fever

If you notice any of these signs, seek medical attention. “Some infections that are minor may be able to be treated with topical antibiotics, but deeper and more severe ones require oral antibiotics,” says Fenton.

Choosing a reputable and safe tattoo artist/shop and diligently following aftercare instructions will greatly reduce your risk of infection. 

Insider’s takeaway

Stick and poke tattoos are a unique form of tattoos that are done by hand without the use of any eclectic machinery. When done by a professional artist in a reputable tattoo shop, the process is safe and results in beautiful body art. 

You should not try doing a stick and poke on your own at home –– for both safety and aesthetic reasons. Always follow aftercare instructions to make sure your tattoo looks the best in the long run and doesn’t get infected.

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