Tattoos at Swat Part Two: Stick and Pokes

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“I had these friends, […] they had this idea, they were like, ‘Oh we should do stick and pokes,’ and I was like ‘That sounds cool,’” Doriana Thornton ‘16 describes. “We walked to Media from Swat on the highway, because there’s two tattoo shops there and we went to try and buy ink and [the shop owners] were like, ‘That’s dangerous and irresponsible! You can’t do that!’ But whatever. So we bought ink online. It was a funny little adventure. And then we all just gave ourselves tattoos and gave each other tattoos and it was really fun.”

Beginning with their first attempts in Fall 2014, Thornton’s forays into stick and poke tattooing helped bring the oft controversial art to Swarthmore and inspired other students to pursue it themselves. Stick and poke tattooing is the practice of giving tattoos without the use of a machine, and instead, using a needle to carefully deposit the ink under the skin, usually one dot at a time. Standard tattooing, done at a shop or parlor, is slowly gaining more mainstream acceptance. However, stick and pokes – with their varying associations to disease, class, and queerness – often remain firmly outside the bounds of what is acceptable in polite society. 

While standard tattoos are slowly gaining more mainstream acceptably, the practice of stick and pokes still remain firmly outside the bounds of respectability in most circles – perhaps for its varying associations with disease, class, and queerness. This hasn’t stopped Swatties from experimenting with the form, and in some cases even led them right to it.

“It was in ML, on the third floor, in my room. I was a sophomore. It was at the beginning of the semester and I was really depressed that semester, but this was like one of the three moments of that semester that I really felt like a human,” Thornton says of their first time giving stick and pokes. When asked how they learned to give stick and pokes, Thornton responds,“The internet. It’s really easy. There’s a lot of eHow’s on it.”

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Thorton’s first stick and poke

Thornton describes how they and their friends “didn’t really give a shit,” continuing the trend of approaching tattoos with an unconcerned attitude. “It’s permanent, but so what. It was such a great experience, ya know? No matter what had happened, it woulda been fun,” Thornton says, shrugging off any any question as to fears or regrets of inking themself. “It wasn’t about what the tattoos looked like, it was about being together and sharing that experience and learning together and then having a skill that I could just share with other people,” they say.  

“I’m a sado-masochist, so I like pain, but that’s not really it. It’s not a sex thing for me. […] It was just being with my friends and being present. I felt really present, which is hard when you’re depressed. I think when I give tattoos it feels good and when I get tattoos it feels good,” they say.

“Anyways,” they continue, “I use these hypodermic needles, so they’re hollow on the inside, and they’re sealed and sterilized,” Thorton says, describing their process. They aren’t explicitly made for tattoos, as tattoo needles are beyond Thorton’s budget. However, they make the hypodermic needles work.

”I open those up and I grab some thread and I wrap it around the tip and then I dunk it in ink and I suck it so the ink will come into the needle, then you just poke. Not too shallow, not too deep. You do one pass, then you rubbing alcohol it, and you have the light outline, and you just keep going till it’s done. That’s the process.”

”I charge $5 for tattoos or I ask people to give me a bottle of rubbing alcohol or like some latex gloves,” Thorton says – basically, people pay with the supplies they need to give the tattoo. ”Maybe if I started asking for more money I would definitely buy these $20 needles,” Thorton muses.

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A tattoo Thorton gave themself

Thorton introduced Bea Grace Baker ‘17, who we heard from last time, to stick and pokes, and in turn, Baker has started giving stick and pokes themself.

“[My] first one is here, and I got it from Dorianna Thornton,” Baker says, pointing to their I AM tattoo. “I planned it for a long time but in the moment I did take something to numb myself because I thought it was going to be really, really painful, and then it wasn’t that painful because I had taken pain meds and so I didn’t expect any of it later on,” Baker says.

“Dori [Thorton] had just started doing tattoos and so they were actually really nervous beforehand, and there was a group of our friends in the room. They were just hanging out while Dori was tattooing me,” Baker says. “I paid for it with a box of of non-latex gloves, cause Dori needed more gloves,” they mention.

About two years later, in the spring of 2016, Baker began learning how to give stick and pokes while abroad in Berlin.

“The first time I did it, I was in this collective house in Berlin with my dear friend Anadel and she really wanted the letters ‘QT’ under her collar bone, for queer and trans. I genuinely did my best, but I didn’t do enough research and I just sat there stabbing her for an hour,” Baker says.

“When she got back to Copenhagen she sent me a picture and all of the black fell off and so she just has this scar in the shape of the letters ‘QT.’ I fucked it up. I did not do a good job. I mean, maybe eventually I’ll fix it now that I’ve gotten a little better,” Baker says, slightly embarrassed of their early mistakes.

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For Baker, stick and pokes have never been a solitary act. Stick and pokes have connected them to others, whether in Berlin, in the queer community, or in their family.

“I think that tattooing and haircutting and things like that, body modification stuff, is a huge part of the queer community. Doing things for each other’s bodies I think is really cool,” Baker says. “It makes me feel more identified with radical queerness.” One of the major influences on Baker’s stick and pokes was the time they spent hanging around a queer squatter collective in Germany.

“I hung around this squatter collective in Berlin […] I had a bunch of friends who lived on this lot out on the edge of Berlin in some nature and stuff. I think there was maybe fifteen or so people living there at a time. They had a concert venue out front and then in the back were all of the trailers. I would go there sometimes and we would make meals together,” they say. “They’re not like paying rent but they all still have their living costs and they put on shows basically for subsistence. Some of them have their own jobs. Most of my friends were involved in some way or another in sex work.”

“At the squatter collective several people there gave tattoos […] they did beautiful stuff,” Baker says.

Stick and pokes, for Baker, have also been a central part of their relationship with their brother. “I feel like spending time with my brother and giving each other tattoos is a good sibling bond-building type thing,” they say.

Baker and their brother have tattooed each other on multiple occasions. “That was over Halloween,” Baker says, pointing to the vulva tattoo on their wrist. “A big part of my artistic style is yonic imagery and vulvas,” they explain. “I went and stayed with my brother in central PA […] however, we did it outside on this concrete block where we had also just done a bunch of work to repair one of my boots with this caustic glue and stuff, so I was kinda nervous about it, and it stayed scabbed for a while, and we probably shouldn’t have done it in those conditions,” Baker says, laughing at their own haphazardness.

When asked about their favorite tattoo, Baker points to two blob-like individuals on their chest, a sketch by their favorite comic artist, Rubyetc. “I got that from a professional muralist, who is a friend of my partner. We went into Detroit one day to do that, and I traded a big pot of tortilla soup for this tattoo. I asked her if she would tattoo me, and she said ‘Yeah, can you bring dinner?’”

“Most of my tattoos I consider a little bit shitty,” Baker says, without a hint of regret. “I feel like I construct my look really consciously but also I feel things are really haphazard. Like the way we walk around in the world tends to be pretty haphazard. We can’t actually predict anything that’s going on. And this is like a huge general statement, but I just like messiness to also be represented, on my body in clothing and on my body in ink.”

“I want people not to get it. I want it to be completely unintelligible,” Baker says.

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Thorton’s influence doesn’t stop there. They also introduced Emma Kates-Shaw ‘15 to the form, giving her a stick and poke of a collection candle on her forearm. Since getting that first stick and poke less than a year ago, Kates-Shaw has devoted herself to the art of tattooing. She began giving tattoos last summer, while working at a camp, and continued developing her skill when she moved to Seattle as fall began.

“I kinda just fell in love with it,” Kates-Shaw says. “It’s a really intimate activity because you’re really close to a person’s body. Also, inflicting harm on them in a way that they’re totally accepting of and ready for and it’s agreed upon beforehand. It’s really radical, it’s very consent-y. You’re just entering into a trust-based relationship when you start giving somebody a tattoo. When you come out of a trust-based relationship like that, which involves pain and fear and all of these things, and both parties feel really happy about it – which is almost always what happens when I give somebody a tattoo – it’s just so rewarding and really special to me,” she says.

“It’s physical intimacy, but it’s also like this person is causing you pain and you’re lying there in pain and you’re just witnessing each other, like one person creating art and the other person suffering for that art,” Baker says, echoing Kates-Shaw’s sentiment.

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Stick and pokes ties to radical traditions, from queerness to anti-capitalism, have been a large part of the draw for Kates-Shaw.

“Tattooing as an art form is so inaccessible to so many people and so stick and pokes tattoos feel a lot more accessible,” Kates-Shaw says. “It’s kind of a way of co-opting a space that feels like it’s dominated by a lot of white dudes and just being like ‘Well, I’m gonna start doing this by myself to my friends.’”

“Sometimes people pay me money for it, sometimes I trade things for tattoos. Most recently a friend of mine dyed my hair in exchange for a tattoo that I gave her,” Kates-Shaw explains. “It’s a good skill to get to disengage from capitalism with. Just be like, ‘Hey, let’s barter! I can give tattoos, I need this. Is there anybody who wants to give me this in exchange for a tattoo,’ and the answer, at least where I am at in my life right now – I live in Seattle and I’m really connected to the queer arts community here – in that circle it’s a great barter skill.”

Kates-Shaw has given between 30 and 40 tattoos, and now, she’s looking to take a big step forward.

“I have a space in my house that is open, it’s like a nook space that we usually rent out, somebody lives there, and my roommates were like, ‘You should put a tattoo studio there. You should just do something there.’ And I was like ‘That’s really rad, that’s a great idea,’” Kates-Shaw says. She met another stick and poke artist in Seattle, and together they crowdsourced funding for tattoo licensing and studio equipment through GoFundMe. After getting licensed earlier in the year, they’re preparing to make their stick and pokes into a more professional affair.

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“[It will be] a tattoo studio specifically focused around queer people of color and women and femmes and we have almost $3000 now to do this […] I don’t know if we can legally open a studio in my house, but we can definitely legally get licensed,” she says.

“The idea behind our studio – or, it’s not legally a studio, it’s a collective where we’re all friends and if we happen to just, ya know, put some ink under your skin and you happen to Venmo us, that’s great,” Kates-Shaw says with a wink and a nod. “The idea behind that whole thing is, it does kind of suck to be in a tattoo studio, especially one that’s got tons of men in it, and have nobody talking about how painful it is. I feel like in a lot of the tattoo studios where I’ve gotten tattoos, people are just like, ‘Grin and bear it! Urrrrr! This doesn’t hurt, I’m fine.’ And it does, it hurts. Of course it hurts. So we kind of wanted to make a space where that’s honored and acknowledged and normal,” she says.

“This is the first thing in a really long time that I’ve actually thought hard about and dreamed about and had energy to pursue,” Kates-Shaw says, reflecting on her post-college life. “I graduated from Swat and I just kinda picked a city to move to. I didn’t really have ‘career goals’ like a lot of my classmates did, who were like ‘I’m gonna get this job, that’ll get me here eventually and then I’m gonna go here and like do this thing.’ I was just like, ‘I wanna be happy! And creative! And keep making art and be in a place that I don’t know about and meet new people and this is the time to do that.’ So this feels like the first thing in this part of my life where I’m like, ‘I want this,’” she says.

“The goal is to get to that place, where I’m someone people can look to and be like, ‘Oh shit, she made that for herself. She’s her own person,’” Kates-Shaw says.

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Kyle McKenney

I’m a part-time games journalist, YouTuber, and sophomore here! I have a passion for video games, comics, and nerd culture. I endeavor to write about these things from a feminist perspective, while bringing new games, comics, and stuff to people's attention.

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