What To Avoid When Getting A Stick & Poke

To some, the idea of getting a stick and poke tattoo can sound a little bit daunting. The thought of getting a tattoo given to you in your home, by your friend, and dot by dot may bring up some questions about safety and comfort. But as someone with two stick and poke tattoos, and who plans on getting more, I can assure you there is a way to do it well and safely. And the result is hugely rewarding.

Like everything in life, there's a bit of risk involved in getting inked, whether it be professionally or unprofessionally. But knowledge and plenty of diligence can easily combat much of the risk involved.

Tattoos are wonderful. They're a beautiful way to show your body some love while also providing an outlet of creative expression. And as I discussed in my last article about them, stick and pokes are a fun and affordable alternative to their professional and expensive counterparts. As long as you're smart about it and you do your research, there is nothing that can come between you and the stick and poke of your dreams!

If you are, in fact, looking to get a stick and poke tattoo, here are some things to watch out for:

1. Don't Use Old Sewing Needles

When some people think stick and pokes, the image of a rusty, dirty sewing needle comes to mind. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the reality. Clean, non-sketchy tools are a must, especially when you're sticking them into your skin repeatedly.

It's best to use individually packaged, sterilized needles, which are cheap and easy to find in bulk. If you're short on resources and time, however, sterilize a new sewing needle or safety pin with a burning flame. Never reuse or share needles, otherwise you're sure to spread disease or cause infection.

2. Don't Use Your Best China To Hold Ink

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You're going to need to pour the tattoo ink into some kind of container for your artist to dip the needle into. My friends and I have used glasses and teacups in the past for this purpose. However, as we're chatting with friends and getting our tattoos done, the ink tends to sit in the cups for hours on end.

By the end of the night, getting the ink off the cups is a huge hassle, and sometimes leads to staining. Instead, find a clean bottle cap to pour the ink into. Not only is it easier cleanup — since you can simply throw out the bottle cap when you're finished — but it also enforces a level of portion control, ensuring that you're not wasting too much of your precious ink.

3. Make Sure Your Friend/Artist Has Actually Done This Before

With stick and pokes, there is such a thing as poking too hard or pushing the needle too deep. This can cause swelling, infection, and tissue damage. Your artist is not in your body, and can never be fully aware of the pain you're experiencing.

The person giving you the stick and poke, having had experience with giving tattoos, along with steady communication between you and your artist throughout the process will help the experience be as painless as possible.

4. Don't Keep Going If You're Swelling Up

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When getting any kind of tattoo, it's normal to experience some swelling and redness. However, if your skin is getting uncomfortably puffy — too swollen — it won't be able to take any more ink. This happens less with professional tattoos, since the needle gun is less invasive than the multiple stabs from a needle. Since your skin won't hold any more ink in this inflamed state, it's best to take a break from the tattoo for a while and let your skin breathe. Do not try to "power through it." It will only irritate you more, and make the process longer. Once your skin calms down a bit, you can resume.

This happened to me with my "grrrl" tattoo. When I first starting swelling up, I insisted on powering through it. But the process only became way more painful and the ink was just not getting in there. I eventually took a 20-minute break, and it was smooth-sailing for the rest of the night once my skin had a chance to calm down.

5. Be As Diligent With Aftercare As You Would With a Regular Tattoo

Since the lines of a stick and poke are usually thin and simple, people I know (including myself) often take a more relaxed approach to its aftercare. However, a stick and poke tattoo is just that: a tattoo! And it needs to be treated as such. Apply ointment to it, wrap it for a couple of hours, wash it with unscented antibacterial soap, and repeat. Stick and pokes pose a much higher risk of infection, so neglecting to be mindful with your aftercare would be a mistake.

It's also common for stick and poke artists to recommend skipping the antibacterial ointment, since it tends to lift a certain amount of ink from your skin. Ignore that advice, and opt for the ointment route. Fading your tattoo a tiny bit is worth it if you're protecting yourself from infection.

6. But Don't Go Overboard Either

Because of the extra risk involved with a DIY tattoo, some people tend to go overboard with aftercare. Washing excessively and applying globs of ointment is a no-no! Wash once a day, and make sure to apply a very thin coating of ointment, no matter what your reservations are about the healing process.

Regardless of what kind of tattoo it is, too much diligence with aftercare can cause irritation and bubbling in the skin in and around the tattoo.

7. Choose A Design You Really Love

I know a number of people who chose stick and poke designs very impulsively, either as a joke or while they were drunk. The logic: "It'll fade soon anyway!" This is not entirely true. Stick and pokes may not be as permanent as professional tattoos, but they will be on your body for years to come if done right.

One of my stick and pokes is almost a year old, and the ink has hardly faded at all. Stick and pokes are still tattoos, and require some degree of commitment.

Images: Meg Zulch; Getty Images, Kathy/Flickr; tealeigh/Instagram; robsmars/Twitter