Stick and poke tattoos, also known as hand poke tattoos, are certainly having a moment, but make no mistake, various forms of machine-free tattooing dates back around 5000 years to multiple indigenous and ethnic groups. Machine assisted tattooing came into the picture in the late 1800’s and played a huge part in transforming the industry into what it is today.
But what’s the difference, and why do some people prefer one over the other? Here’s 4 main areas that set the machine vs stick and poke experience apart, so let’s dive into them.
At the basic level, a tattoo machine is stepping in to do the labor that would otherwise be done by hand in tattooing practices like stick and poke, machine-free, and DIY. Whether it’s a coil, rotary or pen style, the machine moves the needle up and down so the artist’s motion can resemble something more like drawing. With stick and poke specifically, the artist holds a simple metal bar with a needle grouping at one end and uses that to create the tattoo, poke by poke.
2. Pain level
My best description of this difference is more of a “pick your poison” situation. Tattooing in any method creates a wound with needles which is bound to have some sort of pain response from your body. Machine work tends to be much quicker (when comparing similar design/size) but is often described as more intense. Think of someone taking a sharp piece of bark and carving into your skin. The benefit of stick and poke work is that about 98% of my clients think that the pain level is quite minimal, though it does take longer than machine work to complete. Think, a tiny cat claw pricking your skin over and over for a couple hours. In short, machine is fast and intense, while stick and poke tattoos are slower and more gentle.
Many artists (myself included) will offer a topical numbing spray such as Bactine for pain management throughout the appt and tattoos can always be split into multiple sessions if pain is a concern. Make sure to seek out an artist who takes your comfort and consent seriously at all points in the process.
Clients often describe stick and poke pieces to have a slightly quicker healing process vs machine work. Typically, the wound for a stick and poke tattoo resembles a perforation to the skin vs a laceration to the skin. And although this depends on the piece, the artist, and the style, it is overall more likely that stick and poke work will be simpler in design and shading (if there is any) and so it lends itself to being an overall less traumatic wound.
4. Sensory experience
Here is where I think stick and poke work really shines. For folks who have sensory or auditory sensitivities, stick and poke tattoos can be an awesome solution. There is really no noticeable noise during the process and the lower grade pain sensation has been described to me by clients as similar to “ acupuncture” or “meditation.”
On the other side of things, machines can be quite loud (especially older coil and rotary styles) and the constant vibration during the tattoos is sometimes an uncomfortable aspect for some clients. I’ve had clients liken machine appointments to visits to the dentist both in comfort and noise levels.
There are truly so many different experiences that one can seek or have while getting a tattoo, and so many of those are based on an individual artist’s style, experience, guiding principles, shop culture, education, practices, and so much more. My biggest advice is do your research on artists before having them make a permanent alteration to your body. Regardless of machine vs stick and poke, I tend to believe that at least 50% of your feelings toward a tattoo stem from your experience during the process of getting it. So, utilize social media, artist websites, google reviews, and word of mouth from friends to get a sense of how an artist might work and whether it would align with the experience you want to have. Happy tatting!