Jaswal, 24, was 10 when her brother got his first tattoo. She’s been plotting
her own first ever since, but wanted it to be at the hands of someone she
connected with. It would be ten years before
she figured out that person could
She first heard about hand poke tattoos in college, got
tattoo artist friends to teach her some of the basics, and learnt the rest from
YouTube videos, till she had finally worked up the courage to etch a geometric
shape on to her left index finger. That was in 2016.
Since then, she’s poked a total of 10 patterns on to herself, her friends and her brother, till she got good enough to earn money from it.
Hand poke or stick and poke tattoos have a tradition going back to ancient Egypt. They’ve been making a comeback in the West, because they’re less invasive and more fluid, imperfect and artistic.
Hand pokes use regular tattoo inks and a modified needle taken from a tattoo machine. But while a machine can hit the skin up to 150 times a second, the poke method works at a fraction of that speed. Therefore, the artists say, it hurts less.
“Each dot is intentional and hand made. If you miss one,
it shows. That makes each piece so much more unique,” says Shreya Josh, who
runs the Tender Pokes studio in Delhi. “For this method to work, people have to
give you an idea of what
they want to get, and then trust you as an artist.”
The deliberate nature of each poke informs the designs,
which are characterised by lines and dots. From dainty bouquets and elegant
typography to insects, plants, complex geometrical and mythical creatures, it’s
impressive what can be conveyed through dots and dashes — but the style is, by
necessity, minimalist, especially when compared with the
giant, multicoloured tattoo creations of today.
Sticks and thorns
Some hand poke artists use thorns or bamboo sticks, as was traditionally done. But most just use the needle, with some using basic splints to greater control. Mohan Raj, of the Pumpkin Patch studio in Bengaluru, uses an ice cream stick for support; Josh wraps a Velcro band around the needle to steady it.
They both tattooed themselves first. They then experimented with small tattoos on friends, and finally got good enough for commissions. “It takes a long time and lots of practice to get clean lines and even now a new skin type or body part is a challenge,” says Jaswal.
Sayesha Mani, 23, a psychologist from Delhi who got a little turtle poked onto her waist by Josh, says she feels she made the perfect choice. “I was worried about getting a tattoo because I have very sensitive skin, but hand poke heals faster and the scabs itch less,” she adds.
Awareness of and demand for hand poke tattoos is relatively low, even if it is growing, so a lot of the artists supplement their income. Jaswal takes on art commissions and sells prints of her work; Josh conducts workshops. “I get aspiring stick and poke artists to use bananas as practice skins, before tattooing themselves,” says Josh. “But like any art form, it can only be perfected with years of experience and dedication. It also helps, in the beginning, if you have friends who’d be willing to lend you a part of their skin to practise on.”
India has a rich tradition of hand poke tattoos. And Mo
Naga, 36, who runs GodnaGram: The Tattoo Village in Delhi and Headhunters Ink
in Manipur, is intent on reviving the
traditional “hand tapping” method used by Naga tribes, for whom tattoos are sacred.
Hand-tapped tattoos are a mark of identity and achievement. They are made with a two-piece bamboo contraption (like a hammer and chisel), one end fitted with a sharp thorn and the other used to tap the natural dye into the skin.
Mo, who learned the method from elders of the Konyak, Tangkhul and Khiamniungan tribes, only practises it for documentary and academic purposes, and only on tribe members. “It doesn’t make sense for just anyone to get one,” says Mo, who will, however, give you an elaborate hand poke tattoo inspired by tribal art.