- By Tamara Feingold
You remove the sewing needle from a pot of boiling water on the stove and dip it into a pool of India ink, but only the very tip. You find a spot on your skin, take a deep breath, and poke the needle just under the thinnest layer of skin. You remove the needle, dip again into the black ink, and stab into the skin right next to the first spot. You repeat for four hours. You wait for one week and the scab heals. You do the same thing, for four hours again. You have your first stick and poke tattoo.
“I guess counting all of my finger tattoos I have eighteen stick and pokes,” says Tyler Teegarden. “I still like ‘em all. I don’t regret any of them.” The lettered tattoos spelling SAND WICH on his fingers are his favorites. Why? Because he likes sandwiches, and says they’re good for people. He also favors the large mushroom cloud spelling war on his ankle.
Tyler’s hair is the color of a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher. Beads and feathers hang from various parts of his ears and silver spikes line the shoulders of his layered plaid flannel shirts.
“I’ve given tattoos to a lot of people,” he says. “I guess they just see ones I’ve done on my friends, think they’re good, and ask if I can give one to them.”
Stick and poke tattoos didn’t get their start with high school rebels, though. Because tattooing in prison is illegal in the United States, some inmates use supplies like pencils, staples, or paper clips with ink taken from pens to assemble tattoo equipment.
“I learned how to do tattoos from my friend’s dad when he was released from prison after thirteen years,” says Teegarden. “He had learned how to make it safer and safer until there was almost no infection risk, and that’s how I can do such a good job.”
But not all stick and poke artists are as hygienically cautious as Teegarden, and the results can be unpleasant. “I’ve seen so many bad stick and poke tattoos,” he says. “Mostly by people who go too deep with the ink and their skin turns red around the tattoo. When people get ink poisoning you can see the ink going under the skin through their blood vessels and spreading until they have to go to the hospital and get it removed.”
After giving about thirty stick and poke tattoos, sometimes with substantial detail, Teegarden has his foot in the door and a growing DIY-ink reputation. Although he’s taken art classes in the past, they never taught him the skills he was looking for and tattooing gave him the opportunity to get started with body art. “I love thinking about being a tattoo artist in the future, but I’m not sure it’s what I’m meant to do in life,” he says. Maybe someday he’ll be working in a tattoo parlour, but for now he’s satisfied giving tattoos to his friends at no cost. After all, he is only 16.