Hand-poked body art is going mainstream, worrying health experts

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

About this time last year Madie Ley did something daring.

Or foolish depending on whom you ask.

She lay on a couch while a friend gently stuck a sewing needle dipped in ink into her arm. Over and over, the friend poked the needle into her skin until, at last, six small but meaningful letters appeared: GRLPWR.

Ley, 22, has been proudly sporting her homemade tattoo ever since.

"I like the look," the St. Paul woman said. "Some people say it looks dirty or uneven. But I think that's part of the whole experience."

Call it homemade, DIY or stick-and-poke, this kind of body art has always had an air of danger to it. Long associated with criminals in prison who had only primitive tools to ink themselves with, stick-and-poke tattoos were an underground practice. But like tattoos in general, they've gone mainstream.

Celebrities have helped popularize the edgy look. Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus are fans of stick-and-poke tattoos. Instagram showcases the inventive designs of a growing number of acclaimed hand-poke artists. The appeal of a homemade tattoo, fans say, lies in its simple aesthetic and in the intimacy shared between friends who give them to each other.

For those under 18, there's one more lure: Getting a stick-and-poke tattoo is a trendy end-run around state laws that prohibit tattoo parlors from inking minors.

Step-by-step instructions for how to give yourself or a friend a tattoo are easily found on the internet. It requires only a few supplies namely a bottle of India ink, a sewing needle and rubbing alcohol and those, too, are easy to track down.

From there it's a matter of patience and a steady hand. Oh, and a healthy dose of pain tolerance.

It also helps to have a fearless side, because doctors and professional tattoo artists say the DIY trend is downright scary.

The biggest risk is contracting an infection from a dirty needle.

"If they're not sterilized properly, you have hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV," said Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center and a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases.

There's also the chance of getting lead poisoning from the ink.

"If we see kids with those tattoos, we talk to them about the risks," Maroushek said. "We make sure they're fully vaccinated for hepatitis B. We look to see if they're infected, and we'll culture to see if they have staph or strep. Sometimes they need antibiotics."

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org) issued its first-ever safety recommendations on tattooing and piercings. The guidelines are an acknowledgment of the proliferation of tattoos among millennials.

The pediatrics group urged parents to make sure young people are up to date on their immunizations and to talk to a pediatrician first. The academy also stressed the importance of going only to a reputable professional who strictly follows hygienic practices, including using sterile needles, new disposable gloves and fresh ink.

Stick-and-poke tattoos are not recommended by the doctors group.

STRONG ATTRACTION

Shahn Anderson can understand the urge that youths have to do something reckless, irking their parents. A tattoo artist at Electric Dragonland (electricdragonland.com) in Hopkins, he remembers the thrill he felt at 18 when he got his first tattoo.

"My parents were quite shocked," he said. "It was exciting and maybe a little dangerous. Now it's become so mainstream and acceptable."

He's been tattooing for 30 years and is the former president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists. He calls the stick-and-poke trend dangerous, and says the results often are disappointing.

"You are taking a risk by doing this on your own," Anderson warned. "If it's done improperly, even if no disease is transferred, it's difficult to do one properly."

Emma Kopp, 23, the friend who gave Ley her "grlpwr" tattoo, is pretty pleased with her handiwork. In fact, she liked it so much she gave herself a matching one.

Ley and Kopp were part of a group of friends all women at the University of St. Thomas who gathered for a Thanksgiving potluck party last year. They vowed to give themselves "grlpwr" tattoos to celebrate their friendship and work on feminist causes together.

But in the end, only Ley and Kopp went through with it.

Kopp's tiny, hand-poked tattoo is on her foot. She admits the writing is hard to see. It looks kitschy, even tacky, she said, laughing. But she likes it and besides, the appearance isn't really the point.

"The tattoo, now that it's healed, is more about the memory, the action. So I don't mind that it's a little fuzzy," Kopp said.

"Sitting around a kitchen table with a bunch of women who are really important to me and who were integral to me becoming who I am as a woman and a feminist is something that is memorable to me.

"If I'm in the shower or in the bath, I look down and see my foot, and I'm like: 'Yes, this is awesome.' It reminds me of all the women I love and who love me and who give me power," she said.

Ley, who has been both the giver and receiver of stick-and-poke tattoos, also sees the trend as empowering.

She recently did one for an old high school friend engraving a symbol of a heart intertwined with a strawberry on her leg. The tattoo symbolized her friend's love of culinary arts and goal of opening her own restaurant someday.

"It was pretty scary at first because this was the first time of me doing it to someone," Ley said, adding that it was also her friend's first experience in getting a hand-poked tattoo.

"It was exhilarating for both of us."

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