Taking tattoos into your own hands

A look inside the body art trend

Putting the sterile needle in the back of a pencil will increase design accuracy.
Julia Balakrishnan

Tattooing your friends is a good time, but your friends tattooing you … not so much.

Nevertheless, the age-old practice of needle and ink has gained popularity in the past year. With “do it yourself” tattoo tutorials readily available on Youtube or Tumblr, the form of body art is spreading. 

The Journal spoke with two tattoo artists to get some professional insight on the trend. Jason Goettler is the owner and an artist at Ink Well Tattoos and Piercings in Kingston, and Stephanie O’Handley is a professional handpoke tattoo artist based in Samara, Costa Rica.

The most important thing anyone considering a homemade tattoo needs to think about is hygiene. Using needles that will come into contact with blood brings with it a risk of infection or blood borne illness. 

“A tattoo is a pseudo-surgical procedure for which you need a pseudo-surgical environment,” Goettler said. “Often, people will think that if they heat a needle under a flame for a bit they’ve disinfected it adequately to use, but that’s not necessarily true. There are certain healthcare standards which a professional studio meets that an individual is not held to.” 

For studio tattoo artists, understanding the skin takes time and practice. He recommended that if you want a tattoo, finding a professional is the best way to go. 

“Whether or not people did the tattoos themselves, [they] will sometimes regret a tattoo and want to have it fixed,” Goettler said.  But, there’s a possibility for fading whenever an amateur is tattooing, he said. 

There are artists trained in all different types of tattooing, including exclusively using the hand poke method — like O’Handley. It’s safe to say they’ll likely do a better job than your friend using a sewing needle and ink for the first time.

While Goettler advised against home tattoos without access to proper equipment and hygienic conditions, O’Handley said that with proper thought, research and attention to safety, DIY can be done with great success.  

“It’s a whole subculture of tattoos to explore, as long as you’re doing it safely,” she told The Journal by phone. O’Handley herself first learned to do handpoke at home, before getting an apprenticeship at a professional studio specializing in the technique. 

She pointed out that while handpoke has been getting more attention recently, there’s also some stigma around the practice, primarily due to a lack of regard for safety. 

“It is accessible, but because people don’t necessarily do it safely, it’s not always as well respected by tattoo studio artists,” she said. She urged first-time hand artists to do their research, get gloves, proper needles, and (if possible) the best ink, before starting out at home.  

O’Handley said the difference between a tattoo done with a gun and one done by hand is “like oil versus watercolour, you can tell them apart.” Apart from aesthetics, each style also differs in terms of tattooing, healing and general care. 

Handpoke tattoos are often regarded as a more therapeutic and less painful process, according to  O’Handley, in part because the experience is more pleasant with no sound from a machine. 

With regards to general care, handpoke tattoos generally heal very gently. According to O’Handley, since many people opting for handpoke tattoos are looking for line and dot work, there is less to heal.

“As long as the depth is right and care is proper, it shouldn’t need to heal more than a regular tattoo,” she said.

Tattooing is an art form, so regard for technique is important. O’Handley recommended that if you want to start out at  home, practicing your drawing is essential. 

With any style of tattoo, sometimes you realize that what you wanted yesterday isn’t what you want tomorrow. 

O’Handley has the following advice for any aspiring DIY-er: “If you’re interested in getting into it:  work on your drawing, practice your art, and be safe. Be really aware and take the time to practice and get to know it before you start!”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.