a bird tattoo on a forearm


Teens Are Giving Each Other Permanent, DIY Tattoos — And I’m Not Here For It

Jan 17, 2022

The first time tattoos came onto my daughter’s radar was when she was three.

We were on a family trip in Miami to visit a friend when a hairless man, inked from skull-to-ankle, submerged himself into the outdoor pool we were wading in. My daughter was gobsmacked at the sight of him. She was rubbernecking the poor guy, gawking at his colourful artwork. She was amazed how his skin could be a canvas. In a high-pitched toddler voice that reverberated across the pool, she demanded to know why the man had drawn all over himself and how it didn’t come off in the water.

I did my best to politely answer her questions while diverting her attention, silently amused at her fascination. As we bobbed and floated, I glanced at her new baby skin and wondered if she might one day cover it in permanent ink.

Laura Mullin's teen has been experimenting with fashion, while she's trying not to become the mother she vowed never to be — one who comments on looks.

I hate needles

I’m not a big fan of tattoos. Or at least not the permanence of them. There’s no symbol or design that I could imagine loving enough to have forever etched on my flesh. When you add in my lifelong fear of needles, the prospect of a tattoo-adorned arm, ankle or buttock becomes even less appealing.

But that’s just me. I know many people feel strongly about expressing themselves through body modification and that this art form has had historical, cultural and religious significance for millennia. I also knew that my fashion-loving daughter, who goes for an edgy look, might be prone to trying it someday. I took comfort knowing she would at least have to wait until she was the ripe age of 18.

That was before I had heard of stick and poke.

Weighing piercings vs. ink

When my teen floated the idea of getting a nose and belly button piercing, I reluctantly agreed. Many of her friends have piercings, and she knows I’ve had both my nose and belly button pierced in my youth. I worry less about professionally performed piercings at reputable businesses because they are temporary and reasonably safe. I will admit that my nose bears a scar where I used to rock a purple stud, and my belly button has never healed from the steel hoop that dangled from it. Nevertheless, I thought I looked pretty cool at the time.

"I was surprised when my teenager told me that a friend had offered to give her a stick and poke."

But I was surprised when my teenager told me that a friend had offered to give her a stick and poke. A what? I’d never heard the term. I was horrified to learn it’s a DIY non-electric tattoo that, in this case, was being performed by teens with needles and ink. What could possibly go wrong?

After a bit of research, I’ve learned that stick-and-poke has a long history, which also includes Indigenous cultures, and has been used to commemorate significant life experiences and other rites of passage.

But I wasn’t comfortable with a 15-year-old sticking a needle in my child’s arm and leaving a permanent mark.

When Paula Schuck's teen started showing an interest in witchcraft, she wasn't sure whether to be worried or embrace this trending hobby.

The rise of 'professional' pandemic tattoos

At-home tattoos are on the rise during the pandemic, as people look for an outlet to express what they’ve been going through. There is an urge to leave a reminder of this disorienting time, and that’s understandable. My big concern as a parent is that young people may not fully comprehend the risk of infection and blood-borne pathogens that can come when a non-professional performs a tattoo. Thoughts of kids using contaminated needles, sharing pins or leaving discarded, infectious needles around fill my mother’s meddling mind.

"They’ve watched countless videos on TikTok that show them how to perform them at home using needles ordered online."

My daughter decided to forgo a stick and poke because she likes to change too much to commit to ink that could last a decade or beyond. But she assures me her friends who are tattoo “professionals” know what they’re doing. They’ve watched countless videos on TikTok that show them how to perform them at home using needles ordered online.

But no matter how safe it may seem to her, injecting dye into your skin is a potential disaster waiting to happen. Dermatologists warn of the danger of infection, scarring and allergic reactions when performed by non-professionals.

I’m not trying to be a stick in the mud. And I’m not here to poke fun at a time-honoured tradition of self-expression. But as the mother of one, I hope teens will wait until they can see a body artist with professional training, certification and insurance. Otherwise, they may be left with a lifetime wondering what they were thinking every time they look at their homemade tattoo.

My only exception is if the tattoo says “Mom.”

Article Author Laura Mullin
Laura Mullin

Read more from Laura here.

Laura Mullin is a published playwright and writer and the co-artistic director of the award-winning company, Expect Theatre. She is also the co-host and producer of PlayME, a podcast that transforms plays into audio dramas now on CBC. She has worked in theatre, film, and television and lives in Toronto with her writer/producer husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @expectlaura.

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