Time was, if you were good at calligraphy and lettering, you could use that skill to get a job as a signpainter or a scribe or a wedding invitation maker, or something. Nowadays computers get to have all the fun. I designed fonts for a few years, but after finishing three, I realized that there’s very little joy down that path. Designing a font for computer use, like the ones I made, involves a few awesome days of sketching and refining the font on paper, followed by months and months of twiddling pixels and making minute changes to sidebearings and kerning.
I realized that there is one domain of lettering left that has yet to be fully taken over by computers: tattoos. But there’s a lot involved in finding a job in a tattoo shop. Before you can be a tattoo artist in a shop, you more or less need to decide that that’s what you want your life to be all about. You also need to get lots of tattoos yourself. Meanwhile I’m so indecisive that I have little hope of ever deciding on a tattoo that I like enough to be confident I’ll always be happy it’s there.
But did you know you don’t have to work at a tattoo shop to do tattoos? You can just buy ink and needles! You don’t even need a tattoo machine.1 Before those were invented, people did it the old-fashioned way: stick-and-poke.
It all started with Misty’s idea for a tattoo: Be the change you want to see. I had heard of stick-and-poke, but once Misty asked if I could do that, I got interested in whether I could actually do it. In November I got ink and a needle (for Misty’s birthday), and after a while, we decided to figure out how the whole thing works.
First I did a little practice tattoo; Misty wanted to see if the ink would get rejected or anything. It didn’t! I didn’t have the lettering ready for “Be the change”, but Misty had another idea they’d been waiting to use, and one night we sat down at the kitchen table with an ink cup and started this:
It actually took three nights (one for each color of ink) to finish. But we finished, and it’s still there. (Somehow I keep expecting tattoos to wear off after a while if I’m the one who makes them. Seems like there’s no way I actually have the power to make a permanent mark on someone.)
Word got out, and I have a few friends waiting for possible tattoos, though strangely enough, none of them have involved lettering yet. A few days ago I covered up an old tattoo my friend Maddy had of a tiny sprout on her ankle. She wanted a beet instead. I used all the artistic muscles I had, and in a four-hour marathon session, we got a beet to appear. We’re going to touch up bits here and there, and the pictures are poorly lit and blurry, and suffer a bit from the tattoo not being healed, but I believe it’s a beet indeed. At a tattoo shop they might’ve insisted on bright red ink, but one of the things Maddy loves about beets is their dark purplish color, so we made it deeper.
So far, I’ve learned that doing tattoos is fun. Doing them stick-and-poke makes them take a lot longer, but it’s also very personal. I haven’t been present to see a shop tattoo being given, but it seems more mediated by rubber gloves and electric machines. How it works with stick-and-poke is basically this:
1. Get your supplies: Proper ink and sterile tattooing needles.
2. Secure the needle to something you can grip. I use a pencil.
3. Pour the ink into a little container of some sort, and dip the needle in.
4. Start poking. It won’t take long to figure out how much force to use. Too little, and you’ll be able to tell easily that you’re not breaking the skin. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to use too much, because your instinct is always going to be to poke someone less hard. When it’s just right, you’ll hear a tip tip tip tip sound as the needle goes in and out of the skin.
The needle won’t hold a lot of ink on its own, but it doesn’t need to. A thin layer of ink will build up on your friend’s skin, and you just poke through that layer; the ink from the layer seeps down into the hole you’ve made.
5. Encourage proper care. That means keeping it clean (to avoid infections in what, as far as your body is concerned, is thousands of tiny open wounds), and not picking at it (which would make parts of it not stay).
6. Throughout, be sanitary. Tattoo shops take this to a science, and go through hundreds of rubber gloves a day, I’m sure, just like restaurants do. The basics are simple and common-sensical, though. Don’t let the needle touch anything that isn’t ink, your friend, or clean water or rubbing alcohol. Don’t get stuff on the tattoo. Wash your hands. I anticipate that this is the part where anyone who’s in favor of professional tattoos only will jump on me. Yes, clearly, a tattoo shop is probably going to be a little bit cleaner. But that tattoo is going to meet the open air sooner or later, so being completely sterile in every step of the process is, I think, overkill. As long as you take all the sensible precautions, things will almost certainly turn out just as well as they would in a shop.
So that’s how it works. And if you want to get a tattoo, and you have patience and it’s not too huge, and you like the idea of getting it from a friend instead of a stranger in a shop, now you know someone you can call.
Don’t call it a tattoo gun. Tattoo artists hate that. ↩