Shaved heads, dyed hair, billowing beards: Many are using their newly found free time to alter their appearances.
Reddit’s r/quarantattoo thread is filled with guidance; a post on the site features group stick-and-pokes done over Skype, including one that depicts Joe Exotic, of “Tiger King.” More than 100 new members have joined a Facebook group called Stick and Poke Tattoo for Beginners in the past weeks. Kits are sold on Amazon and Etsy but are sometimes sold out.
West Lacount, who owns Stick and Poke Tattoo Kit, a company that manufactures and ships at-home kits, has seen double the typical number of online orders, he said, a bump he usually only sees seasonally. “It has to do with being inside,” he said. “It’s like a long winter we’re all in.”
Three weeks ago, Jaelyn Suarez, 18, a high school senior in Miami, feeling listless, was scrolling through her phone around 3 a.m. when a notification popped up from a friend; it was a link to a YouTube tutorial on stick-and-pokes.
Suarez used a safety pin and pen ink to tattoo a small heart on her index finger, tracing the shape as she described each step to her friend on the phone. She said it felt like a prick for getting blood drawn, 45 times in a row. Her friend inked the same on her own finger.
According to many physicians, there are medical risks associated with this kind of tattooing. “There’s really no safe way to do it at home,” said Dr Arash Akhavan, a dermatologist in New York City. “There’s probably a 25-50% chance you’re going to have some sort of complication.”
Bacterial infections like staph and MRSA can occur if the tattoo equipment isn’t sterile. Viral infections like hepatitis and HIV can pass through needles.
“There’s a reason tattoos are a heavily regulated, monitored industry,” Akhavan said.
Still, whether driven by boredom or the closure of traditional tattoo shops, many are trying it. An at-home kit costs about $50. And for some, tattoos are a way to assert control, at least over one’s body.
Quinn Milton, 28, an artist and game designer in Philadelphia, said stick-and-pokes provide an outlet for stress. Milton, who identifies as nonbinary, has given tattoos to both roommates during quarantine. Milton is currently shading an abstract line drawing on the inside left arm, to pass the time.
Others use the tattoos as tributes. Gavin Morson, 27, of Newcastle, England, dedicated his 15th tattoo to the band Death Grips; the top of his foot now reads, “BOTTOMLESS PIT.” Stick-and-pokes are a grounding process for him, he said, an almost meditative way to anchor in the present. Besides, he said, “it’s hard to be bored when you’re in pain.”
The pain from stick-and-pokes can last beyond the actual prodding and piercing. Dr. Jason Emer, a dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon who owns a practice in West Hollywood, California, treated complications from amateur tattoos when he was a resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, New York, caring for patients from the Rikers Island corrections complex.
Necrotising fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria, can infect a new tattoo, which can lead to the loss of a limb. If tattoo ink isn’t high quality, Emer said, scar tissue can form around the ink.
“The ink is the most important part,” said Inal Bersekov, a tattoo artist in Toronto who has worked with Drake. Ink sold on eBay or Amazon may not be certified, Bersekov said. “It could just be printer ink. It’s a disaster. You can have heavy infections. It can even lead to death.” He’s “100%” sure he’ll get a flood of customers after quarantine asking him to cover up their botched DIY tattoos, he said.
Those intent on giving themselves a stick-and-poke — “against all medical advice,” Emer stressed — should keep the area around the tattoo clean, using an over-the-counter antibacterial or antiseptic, and wear gloves and masks. Aftercare is essential. Emer recommended topical antibacterials, silicone-based scar gels and a peptide serum to help the skin seal.