How Long Do Stick and Poke Tattoos Last?

stick and poke tattoos
Credit: Kheila Cruz

One night after an excruciatingly long day at work, I decided I needed to blow off some steam and a friend suggested I come by her apartment for a tattoo. Up until that evening, the only tattoos I had were done by professionals in licensed shops and, to be quite honest, I did not know much about stick-and-poke tattoos, also known as hand-poked tattoos on a more professional level. On some level, I think I convinced myself that because the tattoo was being done in someone’s home, with a straight needle, some thread, and (probably) not professional-grade ink, the tattoo would not be permanent. But, six years later, a blurred-out kidney bean is still on my ankle, begging strangers to ask what that “blob” is.

The history of hand-poked tattoos

Hand-poked tattoos are, of course, the original form of tattooing. Ancient Egyptians did not have electricity, much less a tattoo machine, to permanently mark women of a “dubious” status. Centuries later, the method became associated with prison culture–so it’s surprising to see a turn to hand poked tattoos by professionals, creating delicate, permanent works on family, friends, and customers. In every century and setting, hand-poked tattoos are just as permanent as a tattoo done by machine–which means there are a few caveats to consider.

Inside an airstream in Marfa, Texas is what may be the only hand poke-only tattoo shop in the United States. There, Anna Wexler, one-half of Slowpoke Stick ‘n’ Poke, turned a collegiate hobby into her profession. Wexler’s introduction to a hand poked tattoo was much like mine, and so many others. “I have this one distinct memory of being out with my roommate, going to bed one night, and we woke up the next day and her hands were like covered in tiny little tattoos. And I was like, what happened?” After Wexler turned in for the night, her roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design, must have looked up how to give herself a tattoo and she did just that, using a safety pin, thread, and whatever ink she could lay her hands on in the middle of the night. Nearly a decade later, those tattoos are extremely faded, just as the tattoo she gave Wexler using the same method.

The technique behind stick and poke tattoos

I assumed, out loud, that the tattoos faded because they weren’t done with a machine. But Wexler corrected me. “The only reason that they are so light is because they were done with a safety pin as opposed to a tattoo needle, which is what an actual hand poker should use.” Professional hand pokers, like Wexler, use the same gear as a tattoo artist who uses a machine, just minus the piece that plugs in. The needles, which come in a range gauges, and ink are the same though. The reason a tattoo done with a safety pin fades so much is because it is essentially a single needle and cannot deposit as much ink into the skin. (Single needle tattoos are popular, but they’re best left for finer details and not an entire tattoo)

The technique of hand poking is not the reason it may fade but the tools used, location on the body, and how it heals all contribute to the life of a tattoo. In some instances, a hand poked tattoo will actually last longer than a machine tattoo. When Wexler first got into tattooing, a friend sent her a machine and she gave herself a finger tattoo. “I had given myself a tattoo with the machine and I couldn’t get it to stay. It kept falling out, no matter how many times I went over it, it kept falling out.” She knew it was because of the placement–finger tattoos fade faster than others because of how much we use our hands–and that, because she was tattooing herself, she couldn’t go deep enough with the needle. A friend offering to help, insisting it would be better to hand poke over the original design, and it never fell out again. That’s when Wexler decided she would stop using a machine to tattoo.

When hand poking doesn’t work

Not every part of the body is destined for a tattoo, or at least one that will last a lifetime. But that doesn’t mean Wexler won’t give clients that they want. She hand poked a dollar sign on the palm side of her friend’s middle finger and the ink falls out every time. It’s not the result of her technique, but delicate linework will not stay that way when it’s on the part of the body that’s constantly in motion.

The differences between machine tattoos and hand-poked ones

How a hand poked tattoo heals is very different from a machine tattoo because there’s less trauma to the body, and that affects how the tattoo looks in the long-term. With a machine tattoo, the artist is creating a gash in the skin, dragging the needle across, whereas a hand poked tattoo is single punctures, over and over. A hand poked tattoo will heal faster because, as is Wexler’s opinion, it doesn’t function as a wound in the same way a machine tattoo does. As a result, she often doesn’t push an after-care plan for her clients. While keeping a tattoo clean and moisturized is important, Wexler may be onto something. Over-moisturizing a tattoo, especially with an oil or comedogenic product, will suffocate the area causing the tattoo to scab and the ink to fall out. Wexler learned this lesson on herself while trying to take the all-natural route of moisturizing a tattoo with coconut oil.

Ultimately, how long your hand poked tattoo lasts has little to do with the technique and everything to do with the tattoo itself. All tattoos will change and fade; that is an inevitable part of putting something foreign onto the human body. So don’t go into a hand poked tattoo like I did with the idea that the bean on your ankle will soon be a faint reminder of a very bad day and, instead, go to an artist who is experienced and uses fresh tattoo needles and professional-grade ink. Not to push me toward one style over another, Wexler left me with this: “I really think that if it’s done properly, a hand poked tattoo will last equally as long as a machine tattoo and it will fade at the exact same rate as a machine tattoo.”

Related: Your Total Primer to Single-Needle Tattoos

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