December 11, 2015

Stick and poke: The risks of the at-home tattoo

There has been a recent resurgence of at-home tattooing, sometimes called "stick and poke." "Stick and poke" technically refers to use of a needle to manually "poke" ink under the skin. 

In some cases, this is a technique used by professional artists (which differs from other techniques that use electrical needles to quickly and repeatedly inject ink under the skin).  Often, however, it refers to a trend of people doing their own tattoos at home for themselves or their friends (DIY tattoos) using a variety of different kinds of needles. While some websites will claim that this is at safe as a tattoo obtained in a regulated, well-maintained tattoo parlor, there are some myths and risks that make this practice a dangerous and often more lasting project than intended. Getting déjà vu? It's not your imagination. Stick and poke is not new, and has had surges in popularity in the past. "Poke and stick" parties were on the rise as recently as 10 years ago and are again in the news.

The stick

While many DIY websites may claim to have home-based approaches that guarantee a sterile procedure, it can be very difficult to sterilize needles at home. While historical movies may depict running a needle through a flame as a means of decontamination, this technique should be reserved for Civil War battlefields. Regardless of the home technique used to clean a needle, any shared needle can carry a risk of hepatitis B or C or HIV, all of which are diseases that can lead to lifelong infection. Additionally, home needles can be contaminated with tetanus, which can be a serious condition that can lead to respiratory failure or even death. Probably one of the most common infectious risks has to do with bacteria that can enter the skin through the "poke" of a home tattoo. Either a non-sterile needle or improperly cleaned skin can lead to bacteria entering breaks in the skin. This can lead to infections such as cellulitis, a skin infection that can spread rapidly and that, when severe, can require treatment with intravenous antibiotics.

The poke

Stick and poke may use inks obtained from a number of places, but some online sources of ink have been shown to carry particular risks. In August 2014, for example, the Food and Drug Administration released a statement announcing the recall of inks sold online that were contaminated with bacteria, use of which could lead to serious skin infections.  Additionally, some teens have used other sources of ink, such as pen ink, which can be easily contaminated and are not intended for tattooing. Some stick and poke websites claim that stick that stick and poke tattoos are temporary and do not last forever. Even though tattoos don't fit into the categories of death or taxes, all tattoos should be considered "forever" decisions, and many tattoos — even if done at home — will not disappear over time.   Some tattoo removal parlors have reported an increase in stick and poke customers, who make the decision to tattoo on a whim or with the idea that the ink will not be permanent.

The law

While the health implications are undoubtedly the most serious, teens doing stick and poke tattooing could also be at risk of legal consequences. Many states have specific legislation that makes it illegal to provide tattoos to people under the age of 18, particularly without parent consent. Some states also have permit requirements for anyone that provides a tattoo to another person, which means that any non-certified tattoo provider could be at risk of fine or other legal consequence.

Go pro

No tattoo is completely without risk, but the regulations that professional tattoo facilities decrease the risk of infection substantially (and don't carry any of the potential legal implications of "stick and poke").  If you or your teen is interested in getting a tattoo, do your research and find a safe, regulated tattoo parlor. And remember: most tattoos, like diamonds, are forever, so giving yourself a waiting period before any tattoo can save risk and regret later on.