It may be hard to believe, but hand poked and machine tattoos are not all that different. Some artists even say the only difference is one uses a machine and the other is done manually. While it’s a bit of a stretch to say that’s the only difference, it is the most obvious. For years, hand poked tattoos were not considered an art form, getting a reputation as prison tattoos or the result of foolish 20-somethings who spend too much time on Google.
Hand poking did not start in prison or your friend’s basement though. It is one of the original forms of tattooing, second to the method of rubbing ink by hand into cuts on the body as many tribal tattoos were done. In Japan, tebori, which literally means “carve by hand”, is the method of using a wooden or metal rod to push ink into the skin. Actress Angelina Jolie has flown to Thailand multiple times to be tattooed by Ajarn Noo Kanpai, who follows a traditional method of using a piece of bamboo with a sterilized needle attached to create his hand poked Buddhist symbols and prayers.
While many parts of the world still practice hand poking for its spiritual and cultural roots, machine tattooing is far more common and is considered by many as the safest method. But, as we know, every tattoo carries risks and each design and location of the tattoo requires a different approach and, in some cases, a different method. Here we outline the six main differences between hand poking and machine tattoos.
Licensed artists versus at-home
The most important consideration when deciding between hand poked or machine tattoos is the artist. Choosing the right artist is always important, but even more so if you’re leaning towards a hand poked tattoo. Some hand pokers you find on Instagram are not licensed tattoo artists. Many operate from their homes, which means there aren’t inspections of their sanitation practices as there are in licensed studios. There are also artists who tattoo from their homes using machines (this set of artists have been dubbed “scratchers” by industry pros). Research the artist and where they tattoo, whether you’re looking for a machine or hand poked tattoo, and get recommendations from friends.
It’s totally your choice where on your body to get tattooed but some areas are better suited for one technique over another. For artist Anna Wexler, finger tattoos have a longer lifespan when hand poked. She came to this conclusion after a machine tattoo on her finger kept falling out. “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.” No matter what, finger tattoos will fade faster than other areas because of how frequently we use our hands. Later on, Wexler had her finger tattoo done with hand poking, giving more control over how deep the needle went and how protected the ink would be.
Cost is a differentiating factor of any tattoo but, generally, hand poked tattoos are less expensive than machine tattoos. First, there’s the obvious consideration that more equipment equals more money. A hand poked tattoo, like a machine tattoo, requires a fresh needle, gloves, and ink but the sterilization process is different. Because a hand poker doesn’t need to purchase an autoclave to clean their materials, costs are cut. For 608 House, a Toronto based hand poked artist, tattoos starts at $80 CAD (or about $60 USD). By contrast, a “micro” tattoo costs $150 USD at Haven Studio in Brooklyn, NY.
Both hand poked and machine tattoos are created by pricking hundreds of holes in the skin to dispense the ink. With hand poke tattoos however, the artist must create lines by poking dots over the same area several times over. Though well-trained artists like Wexler and Kanpai can create clean lines as well as an artist using a machine the result is often not as precise. This is why you’ll see a lot of hand poked tattoos adopt stippling, making tiny dots rather than lines to create the design and texture. Similarly, shading and blending color in bigger pieces are better suited for a machine tattoo. With that said, hand poking gives the artist more control to create and manipulate intricate details in small designs. They’re also less likely to have a blowout because they spend less time in one place and don’t use as much pressure as a machine does.
Time (and pain!)
After tools, time is the biggest difference between a hand poked and machine tattoo. A hand poked tattoo requires an artist to go over the same area multiple times to create the same saturation and precise lines that an artist using a machine can create in one go. Depending on the size and experience of the artist, a hand poked tattoo can take hours or even days. Where a small tattoo that would take an artist using a machine 15 minutes it may take a hand poker at least twice that long. Before you equate more time with more pain, some artists believe a hand poked tattoo to be less painful because the needle does not penetrate the skin as deeply. If pain is an important factor on your pro-con list you’ll need to decide: longer and less painful or faster but with the potential for more pain.
The less-painful hand poked option also means faster healing. With a machine tattoo the artist is moving a needle across your skin, penetrating it anywhere between 50 and 3000 times per minute. Typically, the needle enters the skin deeper than the multiple pokes created by manual tattooing. As a result, your body is ready to fight back and requires extra maintenance. All artists (should) give clients aftercare instructions. Tattoos done with a machine require added moisture and, sometimes, to stay covered for a few days after the tattoo is complete. The area may bleed, ooze, or peel (too much of this may be a sign of infection) over the course of several days or weeks as the skin heals. A hand poked tattoo takes much less time to heal because the skin is not nearly as damaged (though it may appear more swollen than your machine tattoos). According to Wexler, a “stick and poke definitely creates much more inflammation where machine tattoos don’t get that swollen. A stick and poke could get extremely swollen in the middle of doing it and that in itself can make the tattoo take longer. Ultimately though it will heal faster.” She recommends her clients keep the area clean with gentle soap and use a non-comedogenic moisturizer.