The tattoo artist healing the stick ’n’ poke’s reputation

Photos courtesy of Jojo Kim / @jojotastrophe

If you’ve ever been to a scuzzy punk party, you probably have at least one beer-soaked memory of watching someone carving a stick ‘n’ poke into their friend’s forearm. The process typically involves a sewing needle and a ballpoint pen, the ink used for a wobbly smiley face that’ll eventually start to weep blood. And then, depending on how much booze is left, there may be a splash of Evan Williams to “disinfect” the tattoo and a brief prayer that it won’t turn into a staph infection. Or at least that’s the prevailing assumption, according to tattoo artist Jojo Kim, the New York-based artist who’s been helping legitimize a practice typically associated with inebriated amateurs.

A highly sought-after tattoo artist known for her creative imagery and cheeky sense of humor, Kim is one of the most prominent stick ‘n’ poke artists working today. With a body of work exemplifying the technique’s surprising versatility, she can ink Bettie Boop bodybuilders as well as she can Korean folk art. Her portfolio contains stunning versions of flamboyant Vegas pin-ups and emotive Pierrot clowns alongside mace-wielding dominatrixes and Tom of Finland leather daddies that prove one needle is more than enough for detailing, shading, and creating texture. Because she’s undoubtedly one of the best, with an unparalleled ability to turn thousands of individual pinpricks into something that’s gotten clients to walk in expecting a machine, rather than a single medical-grade needle lodged inside a sturdy stabilizer pen.

The tattoo artist healing the stick ’n’ poke’s reputation

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“With the human hand and stick ‘n’ pokes, people immediately think, ‘Oh, there’s a Bic and you’re drunk,”’ she says. Add in its double-entendre of a name, and Kim explains that stick ‘n’ poke artists have had to rebrand their practice as “hand poke” tattooing for the sake of clients and pricing. This is unfortunate, Kim says, given that they shouldn’t have to constantly convince others that stick ‘n’ poke is a valid art form and a legitimate technique that forms the very basis of tattooing itself.

While someone may want the “softness” that comes with a hand poke tattoo, that desire can be overridden by the subconscious, influenced by several millennia of classist and racist stigma against tattoos, which were, obviously, stick ‘n’ pokes until the invention of the tattoo machine in the late 19th century. In ancient Rome, tattoos were punitive measures for criminals, slaves, and back-alley “deviants,” as well as a “primitive” practice exclusive to foreign “barbarians.” And according to researchers, the latter was reinforced in the 18th century after British colonizer James Cook encountered the Polynesian tradition of tattawing, before the art form became the sole purview of foul-mouthed sailors and the American working class, who popularized the bright colors, hard edges, and thick lines associated with American Traditional-style machine tattoos.

This remained the case throughout the emergence of punk culture in the seventies and eighties, as noted by cultural anthropologist Dr. Margo DeMello in Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. During an era of excessive and flashy consumption, young punks “prided themselves [on their ability to] create their own body adornments” sans machine, meaning D.I.Y. stick ‘n’ pokes became associated with the punk community and remains the standard within a subculture that’s still “heavily weighted toward tribalism [and community].” Not only that, but the stick ‘n’ poke aesthetic has also become a way for “real punks” to distinguish themselves from the wave of middle-class people fascinated by the “exotic” and individualistic nature of getting a tattoo.

It could be that there’s something comforting about the uniformity and precision we associate with a mechanized process, especially if there’s still a stranger involved. Not to mention it’s also much faster; Kim has recently been experimenting with machine work, partly because she’s just been getting busier and busier. But for now, she only wants to use the machine for the basics, like solid colors or outlines, and keep the rest all hand poke.

After all, that’s where the soul of the piece lies; it fosters the “intimacy” and “connection” that Kim loves about stick ‘n’ pokes. Usually, there has to be some level of “comfort and trust” if you’re allowing someone to hand poke something permanent on your skin, knowing that the person holding the needle is in full control of altering your body forever.

That said, Kim said this “super personal” aspect of hand poking is another way she likes to engage with the person she’s tattooing, as she’s not just creating a work of art but an entire experience for the people who seek her out.

The tattoo artist healing the stick ’n’ poke’s reputation

Photo courtesy of Jojo Kim

“It can be their artist or the space that they’re in, but a lot of people do care if the person creating the work understands them,” she says when discussing the Korean tiger she tattooed on my leg a few years ago. With pieces like that, Kim said it can be important to consider the artist’s “own relationship to the work.” I even remembered telling her that I’d wanted this particular piece to be a hand poke by another person of Korean descent, who understood its true meaning and was also willing to share a little bit of themselves with each tiny poke. Luckily enough, I knew how talented Kim is, specifically when it comes to a hard-to-master method requiring such care and a delicate touch.

That said, it also doesn’t hurt that Kim has almost two decades of experience hand-poking other people, something she considered a “just for fun” side hobby while studying fiber and material arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually, though, she began to question the actual meaning of her degree, which spurred her to pick up a pen and start furiously drawing again. After a certain point, she finally ended up “putting two and two together” after watching another tattoo artist ink their work onto someone else.

“I could have my drawings on people,” she said, adding that she was curious about how her handiwork would “translate from books in a way that fit on people’s skin.” And while the answer was, obviously, “quite well,” Kim explained that the amazing part about hand poking has been feeling like she was “actually doing something with [these drawings]. And it’s for other people too.”

Kim smiles. “It didn’t feel like just a print, you know?”