Mil­len­ni­als are ditch­ing the pro­fes­sion­als for cheap ink any time and any­where, writes Sarah Downs

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Mil­len­ni­als are ditch­ing the pro­fes­sion­als for cheap ink any time and any­where, writes Sarah Downs

Matt Trevelyan, 22, leans back and tries not to wince. His up­per thigh is be­ing re­peat­edly punc­tured with an inked nee­dle. Lis­ten closely and you can hear the pop, pop, pop, of an­gry flesh.

Af­ter 30 min­utes — with breaks for some sun and cig­a­rettes — an ea­gle joins his fast grow­ing col­lec­tion of “stick-and-pokes”. Keep up: that’s the gruff street name th­ese days for home­made tat­toos. They’re not un­like a prison scrawl, and hurt like hell to ac­quire, so why are they pop­u­lar with young peo­ple?

“That stuck well,” ex­hales Trevelyan, in­spect­ing his il­lus­trated thighs — a blank can­vas only three months ago. “Yeah. I was get­ting in there pretty hard. That’s not go­ing any­where,” replies Amy McGrath, 27. To­day the self-taught jab­bers are trad­ing ink.

“Stick-and-poke is where it’s at. It’s cheap and fun and you can do it in your house with your mates,” says Trevelyan, who first got hooked at a party. “It looked easy. I thought it be cool to mas­ter a new skill. I woke up with four the next day and by the end of the week, I had six.”

His new hobby has be­come some­what of a cre­ative out­let for the in­dus­trial de­sign grad­u­ate, who has strug­gled to find a job in the in­dus­try. He now has 25 spon­ta­neous-look­ing doo­dles: a skull, a palm tree, the words “Live fast, die young”.

“It’s all very sketched, which is the cur­rent thing.”

“I like how messy they are,” says McGrath, trac­ing a faded scrib­ble: “RIP 2015.” Her first at­tempt was done with a sewing nee­dle and

In­dian ink from the su­per­mar­ket on New Year’s Eve. “It says some­thing stupid and it’s ter­ri­ble qual­ity but I don’t re­gret it. It’s a mem­ory.”

McGrath got her first stick-and-poke at 17, promis­ing to her­self to keep small. “Now I’m cov­ered in them. I’m pretty close to 100. My legs are a write-off.”

Be­ing able to tat­too her­self be­came ad­dic­tive, even though, she says, “hand-done hurts more, def­i­nitely. It’s slower.” McGrath now per­ma­nently puts her mark on cus­tomers found through In­sta­gram in her apart­ment’s spare room, which is “less in­tim­i­dat­ing than a tat­too shop”. What’s the ap­peal? For her mostly young fe­male clien­tele, a stick-and-poke is “re­ally go­ing to piss Mum and Dad off”.

Tat­toos have been a skin-deep lan­guage in ev­ery cul­ture, for cen­turies. From the Ja­panese Te­bori style, Maori’s ta moko prac­tice and un­der­ground Rus­sian prison ink, tat­toos have a deep his­tory pre­ced­ing to­day’s ma­chine ver­sions. In 1891 Amer­i­can Sa­muel O’Reilly patented the first ma­chine, soft­en­ing this hand-done aes­thetic. To­day, elec­tric tat­toos are com­fort­ably main­stream. More peo­ple are choos­ing to get a tat­too, some more than one. In New Zealand, the lat­est sur­vey found one in three of us are inked.

“When I was young we got tat­toos to fit out. To ex­press your­self in a way not like other peo­ple,” says Dan An­der­sen, from Sacred Tat­too. “But now I feel like peo­ple are get­ting them to fit

to their peer group. If you don’t have tat­toos you’re the odd one out in a way.”

It’s not sur­pris­ing then per­haps, that the lat­est trend is a re­turn to tat­too­ing’s rudi­men­tary roots. If elec­tric tat­toos are no longer pro­vok­ing the con­ser­va­tive among us, maybe bad tat­toos can.

Patch Fay, from Black Cat Tat­too, says stickand-pokes are the to­tal op­po­site of their ma­chine equiv­a­lents. “Not ev­ery­one wants a per­fect colour re­al­ism por­trait. Peo­ple like the hand­made qual­ity or the goofi­ness about it.”

An­der­sen agrees: “It’s al­most like the worse it is, the more re­bel­lious it is. Not only are they drawn badly, they’re poorly ex­e­cuted. I’ve seen cool hand-done stuff from a more tribal or or­ganic place. But now I see a cel­e­bra­tion of how bad can this be.”

An­der­sen, a two-decade in­dus­try veteran, blames so­cial me­dia. “It would be a very con­tained thing with­out it,” he says. Stick-and­poke artists such as Tati Compton and Grace Neu­tral have racked up thou­sands of fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram. Celebri­ties Ri­hanna and Cara Delev­ingne flood Pin­ter­est and Tum­blr with their hand-done sym­bols. There are even YouTube tu­to­ri­als for DIY tat­toos.

“If you see th­ese lit­tle scratchy things in real life it’s not very in­spir­ing. But you see it in a cool photo on a young at­trac­tive per­son and it’s a bit rebel,” says An­der­sen. “But you’ve got to ask why this per­son has 10,000 fol­low­ers. Is it be­cause the tat­toos are awe­some or is it the whole pack­age?” He adds: “I’m willing to see the cre­ative in any­thing but when some­thing be­comes pop­u­lar for the sake of it, I don’t see any value in it. I’ve ded­i­cated 20 years to try­ing to do aes­thet­i­cally beau­ti­ful stuff, so as an older tat­tooist, I just don’t get it. But peo­ple can do what they like, it’s their body.”

He does warn, how­ever, of the risk of dis­ease and in­fec­tions that may oc­cur when break­ing skin out­side of a ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment. “Peo­ple think they put gloves on and then that’s cool. But if you start dig­ging too deep and use dirty gear, do­ing home­made tat­toos in your bed­room can be worse than un­pro­tected sex. Blood-to-blood con­tact is ex­traor­di­nar­ily risky.”

For many tat­tooists, hand-done is a com­mon start­ing point, but they are wary of re­main­ing self-taught. “It’s re­ally easy to pick up bad mis­takes. I did that as well and had to spend a while un­learn­ing. It’s a pretty se­ri­ous busi­ness if you’re go­ing to give some­one hep­ati­tis,” says Fay. At his Kings­land stu­dio, most of the fix-up jobs come from home. “Peo­ple may choose home­made as a cheaper op­tion but it doesn’t al­ways go to plan. They come to us to fix it or have it lasered off.”

Sera He­len, from Two Hands Tat­too in Pon­sonby, says tat­too­ing at home has its down­falls. “You think you’re an is­land and don’t need any­thing else, but you need to be aware of the dan­gers and what you’re re­spon­si­ble for. It’s cool to start at home but it’s im­por­tant to keep learn­ing. It’s an hon­our to be able to tat­too some­one. I just hope they re­spect the per­son they are tat­too­ing. Re­spect them­selves and their art form.”

Even so, the ab­surd and spon­ta­neous act of tat­too­ing any­time and any­where may be stickand-poke’s big­gest ap­peal. But some say it’s not all-late nights and safety pins.

“There’s a rea­son why most tat­too shops hate stick-and-pokes. Most of them are done shit­tily, with poor hy­giene con­di­tions,” says artist Gabriella Bow­den, 21.

“They’re writ­ten off as a gritty art school thing.” But, she says, “a tat­too and a stick-and­poke should look the same if you do it well. There are some amaz­ing peo­ple do­ing them prop­erly and there’s some­thing very cool about its man­ual as­pect.” Bow­den is cash­ing in on its youth ap­peal, tat­too­ing pay­ing In­sta­gram pa­trons, which funds her fine art from home. But she has stan­dards, she says. “I refuse to do the usual art school shit peo­ple want on their bod­ies. No ‘for­ever alone’ hearts or slices of pizza. I would never do some­thing that I thought some­one would re­gret.”

She doesn’t how­ever, fol­low her rules when it comes to tat­too­ing her­self. “No thought goes into mine at all. I like that I can stab them on to me any given night. My par­ents hate them but they’ve come round, be­cause par­ents have to come round.” Bow­den says they shouldn’t worry too much though about stick-and-poke stay­ing around. “Like any re­fined art form, ma­chine tat­too­ing will long out­last its half-done spawn.”

As for Trevelyan, he’s not stop­ping un­til his col­lec­tion hits at least 100. “I like wak­ing up and be­ing like, ‘to­day I’m go­ing to change my look and it’s go­ing to be per­ma­nent’. What’s the point re­gret­ting it once it’s done? F*** it. My body, my rules.”

Sera He­len of Two Hands Tat­too in Pon­sonby says tat­too­ing is an art form, and peo­ple should en­sure they re­spect the per­son they are tat­too­ing.

Stick-and-poke fans Matt Trevelyan and Amy McGrath, and right, Gabriella Bow­den.

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