Scratching the Surface

Ask a boomer about a stick’n’poke, and – if they’ve heard of it – they’ll say it’s something only people in prison do. But that’s certainly not true anymore: Gen Z are embracing the DIY approach to needles and ink. But why?

By Izzy Asher | Instagram @m0verawayer | Photos by @pokeysteve and Izzy Asher

TW : Mention of Self Harm

Unless you are living under a rock, I’m sure you have heard of stick and pokes. Some of you might even have them. For the uninitiated, a stick and poke is a homemade tattoo, done with needles and ink. Compared to your normal and basic tattoo, a stick and poke is unique and much more personal to yourselves and can be done with friends, for friends, and by friends.

These stick and poke at home kits can be bought for as little as £17.99, and don’t require you to be of legal age. These types of kits normally include a pack of 10 tattoo needles, ink cups for the actual ink itself, 6ml of black tattoo ink, gloves and some even come with stencils of symbols or shapes for your stick and poke desires and designs. If you’re a teenager like me, I’m sure you understand the struggles of trying to find a decently interesting job that pays well and nicking your mum’s money isn’t always as easy as it’s shown on shit tv shows, so with the price of a normal tattoo, which can add up to thousands of pounds, a cheap stick and poke kit is probably the best route to go down.

Whether it’s down to boredom or a creativity overload, stick and pokes have been a thing since the 1970s, where they became quite popular within the skate and punk subcultures, which I’m sure you may know a bit about. Since then, stick and pokes have been on the rise and brought back to life by students and teenagers, especially during lockdown when we were all stuck at home looking for something to take an interest in and invest our time in, as well as being Instagram or Snapchat upload-worthy. 

I believe that the whole idea and reasoning for getting a stick and poke is a statement, letting people know that you are taking control of your body. From some perspectives, this could be seen as ‘rebelling’ from parents or people of a higher status to children or teenagers, as stick and pokes once were a way for gangs in prisons to convey secret messages or hidden meanings. Our parents or carers may now associate these stick and pokes with gangs, violence and prison due to this, rather than the creativity and sense of uniqueness or freedom that comes with it. They don’t understand that for us, stick and pokes are just something in our messed up teenage lives that we finally have some sort of control over. 

Another reason that stick and pokes are most popular with teenagers may be down to them getting older and trying to prove a point to society, they are growing up and can make impactful decisions for themselves. Not quite ‘rebelling’ as such but more like knowing who they are and expressing that through art. They are special and unique to each individual and I’m sure you may have stories of your own regarding stick and pokes, and if not, what are you waiting for? They make a decent conversation starter and can be a great way to connect with people, it’s a no brainer really. Let’s all encourage a conversation about a self given tattoo, why not?

‘I like them and do them as they helped me recover from self harm. I was able to create pretty work rather than hurting myself. I no longer want to do the action of harm as this will ruin my tattoos however I do still get urges but I am able to control this due to having these tattoos and not wanting to hurt them.’

– Anonymous

Tattoos done by a professional conventionally take place in a stinky tattoo studio in the middle of town on your own or with a family member or with awkward conversations with the tattoo artist, which I’m going to assume isn’t the most fun experience overall. However stick and pokes can be enjoyed and done with groups of friends in a public space, the feeling of togetherness and unity makes the whole experience much more enjoyable for a lot of people. It can also bring the group closer together, having a permanent reminder of your friendship on each other’s bodies, which can be quite a cool thing to say you’ve done. I don’t know about you, but personally I feel like having a mate’s art on your body is definitely an exciting experience which can be talked about in the future and joked about for years.

I’ve then considered whether or not stick and pokes could be considered a form of self harm. This was interesting to me because when asking anonymous people what their opinions on this were, out of 34 people, 79.4% of people have said that they don’t think stick and pokes are considered a form of self harm, leaving only 7 people (20.6%) to disagree. The results were pretty black and white, most people seemed to believe that they aren’t considered self harm, which removed that potential reason from the equation. 

However I was interested in what a professional thought about this. @pokeysteve (on Instagram) said “I would agree with you that they aren’t, no more so than a tattoo artist tattooing themselves but I guess I can only speak from my own personal perspective that I haven’t done any on myself as a form of self harm”. However he said that he can’t comment on other peoples reasoning as it may be different to his, which is understandable. 

‘Although the method of application is different to the more commonly done machine tattoo – I think the point and reasoning is still the same as any tattoo – to have a piece of art you can wear on your skin.’

@pokeysteve on Instagram

Sara Clarke, a tattooist and psychologist, also commented on this and explained that “while I guess you could argue that by the technical definition, tattooing is literally harming yourself… I think it depends on the reason the person is doing it. For the vast majority of people I see who have done stick and pokes on themselves, it’s because they want the end product of the tattoo”. She also agreed that “it’s a fun and cool thing to do with friends, rather than doing it for the process of hurting themselves”. She also thinks that it’s “extremely rare that someone would do it for the purpose of self harm, as it leaves a permanent reminder of the pain, even more so than a scar from cutting”. Although this pretty much clarified that a large proportion of people don’t use stick and pokes as a form of self harm, I still do believe that it is possible to do so, just maybe not so popular and mostly unintentional.

Stick and pokes have their own stories and no two will ever be completely identical, which may be part of the reason that they appeal to teenagers so much, they are completely special to each person, so, you can only hope others don’t steal your stick and poke designs and ideas. They’re quirky, I think that’s a no brainer. If your mum starts getting tattoos, it makes them uncool and mainstream- I think that’s safe to say. No one wants a tattoo when their parents have bragged about having 10, it suddenly loses its individuality and makes it less special. On the other hand, this could be one of the reasons stick and pokes are far more interesting, and a cause for the sudden growth in popularity. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that one day, Gen Z will have kids (if you’re stupid enough) and they will grow up to think that stick and pokes are no longer ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ because their parents have them on show from head to toe, but I’m sure that’s what our parents also thought as teens. Unfortunately like most trends, they eventually die. But then out of the blue, 40 years later, they become the “newest” thing again and everyone wants them. Much like stick and pokes in the 70s when they first gained popularity, the trend died and we brought it back to life and gave it some relevance. I guess you and I can only hope a group of people keep it going in 40 years to come. 


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