7 Things To Know Before Getting A Stick And Poke Tattoo (AKA Your Budget-Friendly Ink Alternative)

I got my first stick and poke tattoo this past September. It was given to me by my friend KT on a warm and balmy night in my apartment. My decision to get a stick and poke was pretty impulsive, and I invited KT over to give me one as I was still scrolling through Pinterest and Tumblr for design ideas. I quickly decided on a banner design for my arm, with the word "grrrl" (as in Riot Grrrl) on it. My housemate Lauren drew the design, and two hours later I had it tattooed on my arm.

Now, this decision wasn't entirely random. Living on a college campus, where you're judged by the number of body modifications you have, I am surrounded by people giving and receiving stick and poke tattoos. Many of my friends have small designs all over their body given to them by friends, and many even gave the tattoos to themselves.

Besides these environmental factors, I just happen to be a huge tattoo enthusiast. At one point in the year, I was getting a new tattoo every month. As of now, I have six tattoos, and by the time this story is published, I'll have had one more to add to my collection. So with this passion for ink, it made sense to me to try out a different approach to tattooing besides one that requires a tool gun.

The idea of the stick and poke, or "stick 'n poke," intrigued me at first, but it took me months of courage to finally get one because of the things I've heard about it. Between the issue of sterile instruments and the fact that it's often performed by someone who isn't a professional artist, the process seemed risky and not worth the square inches of my skin. However, once I realized I had a friend who gave stick and poke tattoos, I warmed up to the idea and gave it a go. I now have two stick and poke tattoos, each given by friends of mine, and I don't regret either of them.

Stick and poke tattoos are different from professional tattoos, and I know I had a lot of questions about them before I finally went under the needle. So if you're thinking of getting a stick and poke tattoo, not to fear! I have the answers to all your questions about them below:

1. Is It Safe?

Although the cleanliness of a sewing needle being used to poke your skin on your dining room table may seem questionable, the right tools and the right people can make it safer! Ideally, you want the person sticking you in the arm to be someone you know and trust. In terms of sterilization, stick and pokes can be get pretty sketchy, especially when given by someone who isn't conscientious about sterilization and who doesn't value your comfort.

I am lucky to have multiple friends who give stick and poke tattoos, and who also are very meticulous about making sure their tools are spotless. Of course, even with this diligence, there is still a greater chance of getting a skin infection with an at-home tattoo than with a professional artist in the controlled setting of a tattoo parlor.

2. How Does It Feel?

Depending on the placement of your design, stick and poke tattoos tend to cause more discomfort than a professional ones do. With stick and pokes, your artist is essentially stabbing you over and over again with a needle. One of my friends described the sensation as having a cat scratch sunburn over and over again, which honestly isn't entirely inaccurate.

The process can cause stinging, burning, and even swelling. Of all the tattoos I've ever gotten, the only ones that swelled up afterwards were my stick and pokes. I personally prefer the vibrating needle of the tattoo gun.

3. How Long Does It Take?

Stick and pokes definitely take longer than tattoos given with a professional's needle gun. With the gun, artists are able to lay down lines quickly and easily. With stick and pokes, the artist literally needs to take the time to create the line with the little dots they're making. Usually the first layer of dots doesn't make for a dark enough line, so the artist has to go over the outline multiple times to fill in the lines. Depending on the speed and skill of the artist, stick and pokes can take as long as a couple of hours, which can get tedious for both the artist and the skin. But when the design is kick ass, the price is low, and the conversation is lively, the time flies!

4. What Do They Look Like?

Contrary to what you may think, stick and pokes can come out looking pretty rad. Yes, there is definitely a certain element of DIY in terms of aesthetic (which I'm into!), but those hundreds of little dots end up coming together very cleanly. And stick and pokes are not all small or poorly done. If you have a good design stenciled on your skin, and a steady-handed artist who knows what they're doing, big and beautiful masterpieces may follow.

5. How Long Does It Take To Heal?

Every stick and poke is different. Generally, they tend to heal faster than professional tattoos, and also don't peel as much. Aftercare for tattoos is about the same for stick and poke tattoos: Wash in warm water and antibacterial soap immediately after, ointment for a few days, and unscented lotion for the days to follow until it stops peeling or feeling dry.

For my stick and pokes, and with my "w(h)ine" one especially, healing was miraculously fast. For my second one, pictured above, I was very relaxed with my aftercare, and hardly used ointment or lotion. I even took a bath with it a few days later (you aren't supposed to submerge any new tattoos in water). Regardless, the tattoo healed perfectly and with minimal to no peeling. However, I still recommend you be diligent with your aftercare, and monitor the ink for any signs of infection. And definitely don't submerge it in water afterwards; that was just plain reckless of me.

6. Do Stick And Pokes Last Forever?

Nope. Odds are your stick and poke won't grow old with you. They fade faster than professional tattoos, especially on areas that you clean often like your fingers. I got both of my stick and pokes in the fall, and they've both already begun to fade a bit. They're still totally coherent and visible, and I only notice the fading when comparing them to the professional tattoos beside them.

The fact that these tattoos don't last forever could also be seen as a plus, especially if you rethink your decision later. The way I look at it, I get stick and pokes to rent out weird and fun tattoos before I commit to a long-term purchase. If I'm not totally in love with them, I'll let them keep fading away. If I grow attached to them, I can either have my friends stick and poke over the lines again, or I could have a professional artist go over it to give it a more permanent home on my body.

7. Why Would I Get A Stick And Poke Tattoo Over A Professional One?

Money. No matter how much we long for it, it doesn't grow on trees, does it? Unless you know an artist personally or have your tattoos done by an apprentice, professional tattoos can cost a fortune, with artists charging as much as a few hundred dollars per hour for one design.

Stick and pokes are a beautiful thing because they're ridiculously affordable! Which is probably why they're such a hit with the college crowd. The supplies needed for the job are so minimal and cheap, usually just consisting of tattoo ink and a sewing needle (which artists sterilize with a flame).

For more diligent and conscientious artists, they invest in sterile needles that come in individual packing, which are also super cheap. And if you're lucky and have a friend who does them, you may even be able to get them for free. I paid $5 for my ankle tattoo, and got my "grrrl" tattoo for nothing!

Images: Meg Zulch; Eva Bryant (1); Giphy; nikkislsser97/Twitter