Skip to content

Getting skin-deep with DIY tattoos

Two tattoo artists of different stripes offer thoughts on the craft

A cursory glance around at the patrons of most Montreal bars is all but guaranteed to catch a few tattoos, as they continue to rise in popularity among people from all walks of life. For those appreciative of the art, but hesitant to shell out the hefty fees, DIY or “stick-n-poke” tattoos (so named for their method of delivery – by hand rather than machine) are a common alternative, especially among students.

Technically speaking, machine-free tattooing has a long and diverse tradition worldwide. It can be performed by professionals and amateurs alike, with no need for specialized equipment: anything from flame-sterilized sewing needles to the professional-grade needles normally used in tattoo machines can be used; the method is what dictates its categorization. Yet, in the North American public eye at least, hand-poked tattoos are often seen as being poor quality, or “shady” (or both), depending on the circumstances – punk or prisoner.

I spoke with Isabella Mancini, a recent McGill graduate who has, by her estimate, given 30 to 35 stick-n-poke tattoos, normally as a pre-party favour when she plays host to a large group. Having seen her work on friends, the tattoos she gives are normally simple line drawings – a small skull, a symbol of Venus, a squiggly line – delivered by sewing needle and India ink. “I think it’s fun. I think it’s a cool, alternative, free way to get a tattoo, if it’s something simple enough,” she said.

In contrast, Rian Desourdie, an apprentice tattoo artist at Montreal’s Studio Artease, was quick to note that while she does not speak for all professional tattoo artists, “everyone in the shop had the same opinion without even talking … We frown upon it.” She explained, “Proper hygiene practices, the risk of getting an infection, people not really knowing what depth to go when they do a stick-n-poke. These are all things that we’ve learned and been trained and certified in.”

To Desourdie, aesthetics are only secondary to sanitation. Referring to blog posts she’s seen offering inadequate safety tips, she has little confidence in amateurs’ abilities to adhere to the industry’s high standards of care. After our interview, she brought up a Google image search of stick-n-pokes. Looking through the photos, she and the counter staff at Studio Artease acknowledged that some of the tattoos were clearly made by someone with decent artistic ability, “at least as good as some apprentices.” But she acknowledged grotesque images of infections or scarring as the best arguments for professional tattooing.

Mancini herself said that when she started, her methods were “very unsanitary, like ‘let’s all just use the same jar of ink,’” though now she makes sure to be “as clean as possible.” While Desourdie told me it’s possible for a stick-n-poke to be done and later cared for without issue, she doesn’t find the risk is worth it.

Desourdie also spoke of the way tattooing has become increasingly legitimized as an art form, a path she believes the industry has been painstakingly paving for decades. To her, DIY tattoos are “reverting back to these poorly-done stick-n-poke tattoos that are kind of an echo of prison tattoos. It’s not something I think you should really celebrate.” Speaking about the same type of pre-party get-together that Mancini has hosted, she finds that, “It’s very much that fad mentality … It’s a rebel thing to do.”

Having heard anecdotes from people with stick-n-pokes, the intimacy, low cost, and bonding between friends seem high on the list of reasons to opt for a stick-n-poke. Mancini said of her motivations, “There are certain things that, to me, make more sense to do DIY and to do it in your living room.” Pointing, as examples, to an anarcha-feminist symbol on her thigh, and matching S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) tattoos she’s given to several people, Mancini finds some tattoos better delivered by the hand of a good friend, but she also acknowledges the place of a professional piece. “I like studio tattoos because I like really big, beautiful, colourful tattoos, and I acknowledge that I’m not able to give those to myself, or to have a friend do it.” Here, the two artists may agree, as Desourdie told me about her first tattoo: “Because I’m an artist, I didn’t care about price. I just wanted awesome art. Tattoos are expensive, but they are a lifetime.”

While Desourdie refers to stick-n-pokes as “a fad that’s permanent,” Mancini recognizes that permanence in a different light. “I like that it’s DIY, I think it’s really cool and important…to have a tattoo that your friend gave you, and to have that on you for the rest of your life.”