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The Rise of the DIY Tattoo: 3 Dangers of Home Tattoos

Permanent DIY Tattoos in the Covid Era

With the onset of the Pandemic era, it may not surprise you that permanent DIY tattoos are trending in popularity, along with other observable and habitual changes taking root across the States (and the world). Beginning in February 2020, a shared experience of required isolation began to create a series of behaviors that continue almost two years later, and some of these trends, like home tattoos, can be accompanied by pernicious effects. To be sure, our new collective trends are not all bad, like a welcome change in pace with working at home, casual everyday clothing, and front door delivery for everything. Still, accompanying the minor nuisances of mask-wearing, frequent rapid tests, and reduced travel are other fringe behaviors with equally important long-term implications. And as academia begins to study the emotional, behavioral, and psychological impact of Covid-19 on us all, many fascinating and fringe home-trends, like diy stick and poke tattoos, will undoubtedly leave their permanent mark—and not always for the better.

"DIY Tattoo" Search Data Early 2020

Graph of "DIY tattoo" search data January through April 2020

Data from ahrefs.com

What is a DIY tattoo?

A do-it-yourself tattoo is the process of drawing a picture, text, or design on your skin (usually with pen), then using a sterilized sewing needle to poke ink into your own skin for a permanent tattoo overlay of your chosen drawing. DIY tattoos are also called stick and poke tattoos or hand poke tattoos, and the do-it-yourself method makes the tattoo experience manual as you apply the ink at home with your own hand, instead of going to a professional tattoo shop with a tattoo artist who applies your ink with a tattoo machine. Just like the history of black and grey tattoos, handmade tattoos date back over 5000 years to the oldest tattooed body ever found in the Otztal Alps. The iceman, Otzi, as he is affectionately known, was discovered with 61 tattoos using a primitive method of the diy tattoo known as soot tattooing, where the skin is cut and soot is used in place of ink to pack the wound with colored earth to create a permanent marking. More specifically, diy tattooers have laid out a quasi-sterile process which includes distilled water, soap, a spray bottle, plastic wrap, clear tape, paper towels, a pencil (to anchor the needle), an x-acto knife (to fit the needle into the pencil’s end), latex gloves, thread, a lighter (to sterilize the needle), a sewing needle, talens brand india ink, a small cup, Vaseline, and a marker. The end result varies widely, and though the diy tattoo trend has expanded within the safe cocoon of Covid-19 isolations, unfortunately, as we will find out, diy stick and poke tattoos are rarely a slam dunk, as-far-as safety, or quality.

Home Tattoo

Inherent in the word “tattoo” is the permanent nature of the decision, and as interest in home tattoos increased in the early months of the pandemic, diy tattooers began to find training, resources, and necessary tattoo kits that made diy stick n’ poke or hand poke tattooing safer and higher quality than it might be without the guidance. With professionally produced youtube videos for visual training, purchasable gear including clean needles and tattoo ink, and of course, best practice instructions, diy-ers have been empowered to experiment with tattooing their own bodies. Advocates of the space, like West from stickandpoketattookit.com, say the art of diy stick and poke tattooing is about “reclaiming your own body.” In the face of more isolation, it makes sense that the increased interest in home tattoos is, in part, a reaction to less accessibility to tattoo shops, especially during the early lockdowns. And there may be some benefits to a tattoo-at-home instead of at the tattoo shop, as Men’s Health diy tattooer, Brett Williams, reports that “the feeling was much less intense than getting [work done at a tattoo shop]; rather than someone else using a motor to jab a needle into me hundreds of times per minute, I controlled the pace. Where I might describe a machine tattoo as feeling like a constant bee sting, I would liken the hand poke to a quick puncture from a flower’s thorn.”

"Home Tattoo" Search Data Early 2020

Graph of "home tattoo" search data January through April 2020

Data from ahrefs.com

3 Primary Dangers of Home Tattoos

With the convenience of being able to control the pace of your tattoo, home tattoos could certainly be appealing to tattoo aficionados and newbies alike who are averse to the sensation of a tattoo machine in the hands of a tattoo artist. But do the benefits outweigh the three primary dangers of home tattoos? As with all permanent modifications of your body, you’ll have to be the judge.

1) Home Tattoos Are Unlicensed

The practice of tattooing has always had inherent risks for personal and public health, and as a result, most states have adopted laws governing the profession. These licenses ensure that you are receiving your tattoo from a recognized professional and that you’re receiving it in a licensed location so that you have recourse for any damages caused by unlicensed practitioners and unsanitary practices. In fact, according to subject matter expert attorney Mark Theoharis, tattooing without a license is illegal, and if someone without a license gives you a tattoo (even if it’s free), they have committed a crime. Though there may seem to be a legal loophole for those giving themselves a tattoo, the primary danger is the inability to seek legal restitution for any damages caused to you during or following the home tattoo process.

2) Risk of Bloodborne Pathogens, Infections, and Allergic Reactions for Home Tattooing

Bloodborne Pathogens or BBPs can occur during the tattoo process with the risk of contracting a virus when your skin is punctured and exposed because of the open wound. The more common and dangerous viruses are HIV, Hepatitis B, and C, and these viruses have permanent life-altering effects including some side effects that cannot be cured i.e. death. More often though, the open wounds caused by tattooing may cause skin infections because of germs, which can produce side effects like redness, swelling, pain, fever, and nausea. Beyond these, the use of poor-quality tattooing equipment or inks may cause unintended scarring and inflammation that affect your tattoo's visual appeal or you may suffer from an allergic reaction due to ink poisoning with symptoms like high fever, sweats, chills, and shakes. In many cases, the risks of pathogens, infections, and allergic reactions, are also closely related to unsanitary environments. It goes without saying that the danger of home tattoos may be to your personal health, with short and long-term illness as a possible detriment.

3) DIY Tattoo Blowout

Though it may sound like a party, diy tattoo blowout is a common mistake made by untrained tattooers. Tattoo blowout occurs when the ink blows out under the skin because the tattoo needle has gone too deep. The effect is a permanent blurry tattoo line that makes you wish you had gone to a professional tattoo artist. Another effect is keloids, which is scar tissue that makes your tattoo look like it is raised above your skin. The main danger here is that you’ll have a permanent reminder of the artistry and excellence you could have enjoyed with the help of the best tattoo artists. No one wants to look at a bad tattoo for the rest of their life, much less have unattractive scarring. The good news is you can always visit your favorite tattoo shop for a cover-up tattoo.

DIY Tattoos vs Tattoo Shops

The benefits of DIY Tattoos

You might be saying to yourself, the dangers of a tattoo exist whether you’re getting a tattoo in a shop or giving yourself a diy tattoo, and you’re mostly right. For those who are sanitary, experimental, diligent-creatives, DIY tattoos--like tattoo shop tattoos--can be prepped for safety, applied with skill, and if executed properly, provide a sense of empowerment. There are even communities on pinterest for "the do-it-yourself, machine-free tattoo community dotwork, linework, blackwork," where you can share your diy stick and poke tattoo pictures, ask questions, and share feedback on other's tattoos. Creativity, resources, and communities are great benefits of any body modification trends because they help you explore your passion with a safety net. However, if you are not committed to the excellence necessary to ensure the safety and quality of a diy stick and poke tattoo, you will benefit from the licensed safety and quality expertise you can expect from a tattoo shop.

The main benefits of tattoo shops are:

1) licensing by the state to ensure public health (and your health) in the custom tattoo process
2) employment of professionally licensed tattoo artists whose work can be observed and reviewed in advance, to ensure the safety and quality of the tattoo you’ll receive.
3) trained tattoo artists who have learned to avoid tattoo blowout

Should I Get a DIY Tattoo?

Listen, at Sacred Raven Tattoo we're big fans of tattoos, and our team has spent decades honing the art of tattoo design, application, and aftercare. We understand the excitement of trends like diy stick and poke tattoos and we're grateful there are great resources available to make them safer. Here's the honest truth: we regularly have diy tattooers come into our shop to get a cover-up tattoo because they've botched their diy stick and poke tattoos. Anyone who experiments with home tattoos before-or-during the pandemic will have a permanent reminder on their skin, and unfortunately, without the years of experience of a successful tattoo artist, the chances that you'll nail your artwork and inkwork with a do-it-yourself tattoo is rare. We never want to discourage safe and sanitary creativity, but to be transparent, we'd rather design your tattoo before you need a cover-up because it ensures you'll get exactly the tattoo you want. That said, we'll be here for you along your tattoo journey, no matter what you decide, and help you bring your tattoo ideas to their fullest potential.

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