Body Art: On How Stick ‘n’ Pokes Entered the Tattoo Mainstream

Tea Leigh in her private studio (Photo: Nicole Disser)

If wandering eyes are any indication the rest of the world is looking at your tattooed skin (we’re assuming you have at least one?), then maybe inquiring oglers have noticed—myself included—that stick ‘n’ poke tattoos are kind of having a moment. What are at best simple, black (or faded to a deep blue), crude designs and at worst muddled, errant squiggles suddenly seem to be less fringe and more everywhere-you-never-thought-you’d-see-them: the cast of Girls, Instagram models, anyone really. And it’s at least partly thanks to DIY tattoo kits and pulse-sensing boutique owners who smartly pimp stick ‘n’ pokes to attract trend seekers to sales.

Out of the blue, home pokes are like the new black lipstick, another symbol of outsiderdom co-opted by mainstream fashion. At least that’s what so many fashion mavens would have you believe, see:  XOvain, wherein Caitlin A. recounts the nervous glee of getting her very first hand poke: “Following this trend means being stuck with it for life,” she writes, “but I’m ready for that kind of commitment”; W magazine, which documents the “crude tattoos or ‘stick ’n’ pokes,’ as they are known, [that] adorn the arms, legs, torsos, and even inner lips of countless artists, who are drawn to their homemade quality and the way in which they are created”; and Nylon, which demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between “DIY tattoos” and machine-made tattoos at the hands of one Miley Cyrus.

These accounts are characteristically vapid, as well as being a mild form of cultural appropriation—neither of which are qualities unfamiliar to the world of much fashion writing. At worst, declaring stick ‘n’ pokes nothing more than a trend trivializes a legitimate art form, one that really doesn’t need any more flak. Just ask Tea Leigh, a tattoo artist living in Brooklyn who specializes in stick ‘n’ pokes, “These kinds of things frustrate me,” she admitted. So much so that it took a slew of emails and an in-person meet-up to convince her I wasn’t writing another trend piece.

Recently, a magazine asked Leigh to appear as the face of one such style forecast. She respectfully declined, despite the opportunity to get her name out there. “I don’t want to put myself in that position because I want to be taken seriously in the tattoo industry, which is freakin’ cut throat,” she explained. “I’d rather support the tradition of stick ‘n’ pokes as opposed to the short-term excitement.”

Admittedly, Leigh’s tattoos have potential for mass appeal. It’s not for nothing she has close to 20,000 followers on Instagram. Tattoo vets like myself admire her work for its incredible detail and a certain delicateness might be more attractive to plebes. “I do a lot of firsts,” Leigh said, which is actually surprising. Traditionally stick ‘n’ pokes are a right of passage, less appropriate for amateur hour.

Though Leigh’s Audubon-like poppies, woodsy creatures, and animal bones are consistently amazing and technically marvelous, her medium is still considered less than legitimate in the tattoo world. (Which isn’t even to mention the fact that she would certainly qualify as a professional tattooer for no other reason than that she makes a living off her work.) But Tea Leigh, and other artists like her including Home Poke from Toronto, and Slower Black (aka Jenna Bouma who now resides at East River Tattoo in Greenpoint) are using the give-very-few-fucks attitude of stick ‘n’ pokes to help bring the tradition out of the shadows. And it’s in Brooklyn where these artists are getting a head start.

“I’m considered an outsider in the world of tattooing, and maybe I’ve partially done that to myself” Leigh explained. “I have support from a few well-known tattooers, but for the most part I’m kind of alone.”

As fresh as they may seem now, stick ‘n’ pokes aren’t a new phenomenon—they’ve been around for a very long time, though generally confined to the skin of punks, traveling kids, prisoners, bikers, and other outsiders. Speaking from personal experience, most stick ‘n’ pokes aren’t done by professional tattoo artists, but by young, drunk, and vaguely reckless individuals.

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Tattoos like these typically have little if anything to do with vanity or adorning your body with artwork. Sticking yourself with needles willy-nilly is like taking a giant middle finger and directing it at the up-tights. The uglier the result, the better. In this sense, home pokes qualify more as works of ingenuity and tolerance than exercises in technical proficiency (whereas stick ‘n’ pokes done by professionals like Tea Leigh have totally different aims). Home pokes are frequently intended to be masterpieces of filth, products of dark jokes and twisted imaginings. They’re inherently regrettable, and if you’re proud to show your mom your stick ‘n’ poke, you either have a super rad mom or you did it wrong. The goal is to be rotten.

For good reason then, stick ‘n’ poke tattoos like these are generally looked down up by a tattoo community which has long fought for legitimacy and to combat the stigma that tattoos spread disease and cause disasters. Because after all, the best case stick ‘n’ poke scenario is that you’ll get a shitty tattoo with some great memories attached, but the worst case scenario is that you could end up with ink poisoning or, worse yet, a communicable disease. But on the other hand? You’ll be hard-pressed to find even the most “legitimate” tattoo artist without one of his or her own.

Tea admits she came from humble stick ‘n’ poke roots. “I went to school in Kansas City and hung out in the punk scene so it’s just sort of what I grew up around,” she said. But as Leigh got more serious about her art, she decided to improve her methods. “I realized I didn’t want to put art on people’s bodies anymore unless I made it look good,” she said. “I’m an artist and illustrator and if someone’s going to walk around with my mark on them forever I want them to be like that’s really bad ass! Where’d you get that?”

Luckily, Leigh had friends who were down to be human canvases. “I started practicing on myself and my really dumb friends who didn’t care if I made mistakes,” she said. “And it’s really all because of my friends I’m where I’m at now, they really helped me.”

It’s mesmerizing to watch Leigh work—she manages to make a perfectly straight line look effortless. “It took me so long to learn how to get a clean line,” she admitted. “It was such a challenge, I didn’t even think it was possible to do it.”

Funnily enough, Leigh wasn’t aiming to become a professional tattoo artist. As an illustrator and musician, she had her sights set elsewhere. But through a series of events that wouldn’t have been remotely imaginable just a few years ago, Tea-the-tattoo-artist has acquired a massive following on Instagram (to the tune of 18,500 people) in just over a year and a half of professional work—enviable by any standards. Many tattoo artists now rely heavily on Instagram as a means of advertising their work and connecting with other artists.

But Tea struck social media gold when she tattooed a well-known photographer, who in turn posted the tattoo on Instagram. “I woke up the next morning and had 400 more followers,” she recalled. “I was like OK, this is it—I’m just going to ride the fuckin’ wave.” Suddenly Tea’s inbox was so full she could barely keep up with the emails. “I was never going to be a tattoo artist,” she said. “And Instagram was like, oh no, actually you are.”

“Social media is fucking scary,” she laughed.

Instagram has had a major impact on the tattooing industry, giving artists who might otherwise be unknown because of location or unclassifiable style access to a massive audience. “I feel like tattooing is really changing now where it used to be a really closed-off club, and now tattooers are able to connect more so than they ever have been,” Tea said. “Which is great for business, but it’s also bad because now just anyone thinks they can tattoo and they don’t realize it actually is a really difficult thing to perfect.”

Like many hand pokers, Leigh is self-taught. She bypassed the traditional route of apprenticing at a shop under an experienced tattoo artist and works out of a private studio. For one, she said apprenticing is unavailable to her because it’s an expensive process (one that requires apprentices to work for very little to sometimes no pay at all for often the span of a year or longer) but mostly because it’s reserved for artists working with machines.

“No one teaches hand poking at shops, there are no apprenticeships for it,” she said. “It comes from working on your own towards a goal, and doing it all by yourself.”

Being your own sensei also means practicing some serious self-discipline. “I went a long time before I started charging money,” Leigh explained. “I waited because I wanted to have that learning curve and I felt like I shouldn’t start charging for a tattoo until I was damn sure it was going to look good. Not going through an apprenticeship, there’s this humility you have to teach yourself.”

Leigh admits that by not following the traditional route, she’s pegged herself as a “lone lady wolf.” But she still respects the apprenticeship process, even if (at least so far) it’s not for her. “I think a lot of people get frustrated, and sometimes rightfully so, because they’ve worked for upwards of five years to gain any recognition in this industry,” she said. “They’ve gone through hell in apprenticeships, learning this very intense skill and getting walked all over in the process. A lot of people feel that stick n pokers aren’t forging relationships with tattooers and they’re looked down upon for that.”

The same scorn leveled on “scratchers,” or DIY tattooers with no real experience, is often reserved for stick ‘n’ pokers like Tea Leigh. Never mind that her work is undeniably skilled and the product of hundreds of hours of practice. I’ve sat for dozens of tattoos, and Leigh worked quickly and methodically, and her piece was definitely among the best tattoos I’ve ever had. Her hand movements were measured and exact and her method of poking was far from what I expected or had ever experienced.

Still, Leigh hasn’t decided if she’ll ever end up as an apprentice. “I’m kind of just going with the flow,” she said. “It’s day-by-day for me, more and more people are seeing my work and are excited by it, and that’s something I’m super pumped on. But if I ever do decide to learn machine I certainly wouldn’t teach myself but  would seek out a mentor whose work I respected.”

Though the fact that stick n poke artist Slower Black is working at East River Tattoo is a harbinger that acceptance is on the horizon. “I saw that she was successful in the industry and is doing guest spots all over the world and is really kind of taking over the idea of hand poking and made it less of a in-your-living-room-fun-activity,” Leigh said. “She’s like, no, fuck this.This is what I want. I’m going to bring it to shops and you can’t support me or you can’t. It’s up to you. She really inspired me and a slew of other people.”

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