Stick and poke artists get by with a little help from their (Instagram) friends
FREYA WASTENEYS // CONTRIBUTOR
Illustration by Ashley Loo
Tattoos have become a common form of self-expression for the young masses, ranging from cultural to cosmetic. With quick turnarounds, clean lines and surgical sanitation, getting a tattoo in a traditional shop can sometimes feel a little like going to the doctor’s office, and for those dipping their toes into the scene, this can be a little off-putting. Physically, it’s safer than ever to get a machine tattoo, but somewhat counter-intuitively, more and more people are opting for the cruder DIY option – hand-poked tattoos.
Despite longer sitting times, higher possibility of infection and less line control, hand-poking (otherwise known as stick and poke) artists have ascended from jailbird to hipster at a speed that only social media can facilitate. Thanks especially to the recognition of Instagram followers, hand-pokers have hit the mainstream, and many artists are able to make a respectable living off of in-home sessions.
Ian Gruyere, a hand-poking artist based out of Squamish, believes there are many reasons that people seek out hand-poke tattoos, but has noticed the trend is most popular with women, queer people and “people at the lesser-end of the power dynamic,” who seek the emotional safety, and intimate environment that has become associated with the practice.
In their final year at Quest University, Gruyere’s interest in tattoo culture has led them to explore the topic as an undergrad thesis – looking especially at tattoo artists developing alternatives to what is typically a “hetero-normative, aggressive and male-dominated shop culture.”
Much of the inspiration for Gruyere’s thesis came from an interesting conversation with the New York tattoo artist, Marcel Redford. “Effectively what Mars [Marcel] said was that for queer people, tattooing is not just a beautiful art form, but a really powerful means of claiming agency over their own body,” said Gruyere. “If you’re a queer person, or a trans person, or a person of colour, you walk into a space and people will make assumptions about you based on how you look, or what they perceive you to be. A lot of the time people don’t really have a lot of control over how to redirect or contest or subvert those gazes, but tattooing can be that thing.”
This idea resonated with Gruyere and has influenced both their personal and professional life. “I think it really validated a lot of the comfort I felt around being a queer person and getting into tattooing,” Gruyere said, whose preferred pronoun is ‘they’. “Not because it was just a weird thing that queer people do because they do weird things, but because it is a really meaningful thing that gave me a lot of comfort in my own identity.”
At 23, Gruyere is still relatively new to the world of hand-poking, but has received recognition through both word of mouth and Instagram. Known by their handle, @shortchorts, Gruyere’s main clients are fellow students who, from the beginning, were stoked about their tattoos despite Gruyere’s lack of experience. “Pretty much every evening people would come over and I would doodle on them with a sharpie,” said Gruyere. “They were really messy and sloppy and stuff, but no body seemed to care that the tattoos I was giving them were kind of bad, hurt a lot and weren’t that beautiful.”
From an aesthetic perspective, the most popular stick and poke artists go against the grain of what is traditionally deemed attractive on social media. Their photos are nonchalant, often lack good lighting, and emphasize weird and wacky captions. Gruyere notes that the most popular artists strike “an interesting balance between being a little aloof, but also connecting enough that people develop a personal relationship.” Rather than highly curated Instagram accounts with perfectly set up photos, people seem to be drawn to accounts that emphasize a certain casualness.
The tattoos themselves are often squiggly and childish. There is a sense of experimentation tied to slapdash line work, and often the experience is sought out over the end product. While Gruyere’s style is fairly precise and detailed at times, there is still a certain quirkiness found in their unapologetic line-work. “In terms of audience reception, I don’t think it really matters what your medium is, I think people should have the capacity to have the influences they want,” said Gruyere. “But I do think that there are certain things that have developed in hand-poke culture, like the home studio, that I think should remain an integral part of the hand-poke community.” Body modification, more than just an appreciation of art, is an assertion of individuality and autonomy, and in many cases is treated as a social activity rather than a business exchange. Despite the discomfort of being poked with a needle for hours, there is a sense of intimacy and trust that develops between the artist and the client in a home environment.
Starting from modest beginnings, Gruyere has been surprised by how their practice has taken off. While the majority of their clients are local, Gruyere has had a few celebrity-like moments of recognition. “I’ve noticed the start of what seems like the convergence of online personas and real life tattoo opportunities,” they said, describing several improbable meetings.
Through both the practice of hand-poking, and the creation of their thesis, Gruyere has gained an appreciation for an art form they once took for granted. “It’s shown me a lot about digging under the surface of certain personas, and getting into more of the deeper qualities of a person,” said Gruyere. “Obviously there is no universal experience, but it’s the variations that make it interesting.”