Nova Scotia

Stick and poke tattoos concern public health officials

A more back to basics, do-it-yourself approach to tattoos is growing in Halifax, but not without concern and criticism from the traditional tattoo parlour industry, as well as officials from Public Health.

No fancy machinery to it. The tip of a needle is dabbed in ink and pierced into the skin

Laura Thorne sanitizing a hand before giving a hand poked tattoo. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

A more back to basics, do-it-yourself approach to tattoos is growing in Halifax, but not without concern and criticism from the traditional tattoo parlour industry, as well as officials from public health. 

Hand poked tattoos, or stick and poke as they are commonly called, are done with just a needle and a bottle of ink.

There's no fancy machinery to it. The tip of a needle is dabbed in ink and pierced into the skin. The tattoos are made up of tiny ink dots. 

For the most part, hand poked tattoos are happening outside of tattoo parlours, in people's homes. This has caused concern about their cleanliness. 

Laura Thorne, a Halifax student and visual artist, has been hand poking tattoos in her living room for a year and a half.

Thorne does a lot of paintings and drawings. She felt taking her sketches from her notepad to human skin was a natural artistic evolution.

Thorne is conscious about sanitizing each of the tools she uses. Her tattooing supplies include rubbing alcohol, tattoo ink, vinyl gloves, different cloths and containers for water and sanitized needles.

She uses a sanitized hospital pen, the kind doctors use to mark incisions, to draw the initial tattoo sketch before adding the ink.

This hand poke tattoo of a troll took Laura Thorne eight hours to complete. (Submitted by Laura Thorne)

"I think people get quite wary at the idea of stick and pokes because they have sort of a negative connotation in terms of sanitation, cleanliness and professionalism," said Thorne.

"You see a lot of kids giving tattoos to themselves using things like sewing needles, breaking apart pens, using pen ink…There's a lot of room for disease and infection in there but as long as you sanitize properly, it's really the same process as a normal tattoo."

Thorne's done almost 30 tattoos since she started, mainly for roommates and close friends. She says none of them have led to infections. 

Thorne has seen a huge spike in people wanting tattoos. She's hand poked a different tattoo every day for the past 10 days. She partially attributes that to Instagram, where she and many other hand poked tattoo artists share their designs. 

"I think that this practice is sort of regaining its merit and rewriting itself a little bit so I'm happy to be a part of that," said Thorne.

"I'm using the same needles and the same ink and the only thing that's missing is the motor that's pushing things in and out so I've replaced that with my own movements."

Samuel Perrier-Daigle got his first hand poked tattoo two years ago. He bought his own equipment shortly after and has hand poked over 20 tattoos since, none of which he says have become infected.

Hand poked tattoos often include written words or quotes. (Submitted by Laura Thorne)
Like Thorne, he's an artist who converts his drawings into tattoos designs. He too has seen a recent rise in the amount of tattoos he's done. 

"Maybe it's cause it's cheap. It's just go over to a friend's house, you hang out and you just do a little tattoo," said Perrier-Daigle. 

He says a lot of students who want a professional tattoo don't have money for one, so they turn to hand poked designs.

Perrier-Daigle says there's a lot of opposition between DIY tattoo artists and professionals in the city's tattoo parlours. He says the contention is over health and sanitary issues and the fear of losing business. 

"The thing is that anybody can do it. If anyone can do it that means there's going to be some really bad hand poked tattoos out there and tattoo artists obviously have to cover them up," he said.

"I asked my tattoo artist one time for needles and he was like 'no, don't ever do that.' He told me 'don't do it, don't even think about it.'"

That's Amber Thorpe's stance. She runs Adept Tattoos in Bedford. 

Thorpe says it's harder and takes much more training to do hand poked than machine tattoos. She says amateur tattooists aren't properly equipped to hand poke in their homes. 

"If they're using any kind of porous surfaces which can absorb body fluids, [it can] basically become a breeding ground for infection," said Thorpe.

Safe Body Art Act

"If you break that dermis and put that ink within the blood stream, there could be poisoning." 

Thorpe's been pushing for regulations in the province's tattoo industry for nine years. The Safe Body Art Act passed a third and final reading at Province House in December 2011, but it's currently not being enforced. 

Thorpe says enforcement will help prevent people from getting tattoo infections and cross-contamination. 

"It will help keep the professionals doing what they do," said Thorpe. "I've never gotten a root canal out of a house."

The province's Department of Health and Wellness is working on a set of regulations which will be used to enforce the Act.

Carrie Fraser, an environmental health program officer within public health says she doesn't see stick and poke as a safe practice. 

"There are a lot of risks. The instruments themselves, the sharing of needles," Fraser says. "Even the ink that's being used - where does that come from? Is it from a ballpoint pen? Is it Health Canada approved?" 

Fraser says her group is putting the finishing touches on the regulations, which means there could soon be enforcement of hand poked operations.

Fraser says health officials are unlikely to stop people from tattooing their own bodies, but people who tattoo others could be subject to enforcement. 


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