Stretched out on my oversized couch in my apartment in downtown Oakland, my friend Devin Miller—an Oakland artist with short, choppy bleached hair and an eclectic thrift store wardrobe—and I watch The Daily Show on my laptop, laughing about Rush Limbaugh’s latest antics. It feels like any other night, relaxing after a long day at work with a friend at home, though she and I both know that tonight isn’t typical. I am serving ginger and honey tea when she pulls out a green, pink, and yellow striped make-up bag with little handles on the top—the kind you can buy from the dollar bins at Target—and says, “Are you ready?”
I sigh, briefly contemplating changing my mind about our deal, but say yes anyway. “Well, let’s get going,” she says, opening her unconventional tattoo kit. Miller is about to give me my first stick-and-poke, or homemade jailhouse-style tattoo, which I have found to be a customary part of the local do-it-yourself culture of Oakland. There is no backing out now.
Stick-and-pokes are simple, raw tattoos, done without a gun or electricity. Instead they are done with a sewing needle, some thread and a pencil for stability. They are traditionally designs dictated by lines, without shading or colors. Friends usually administer them for little or no money, almost ritualistically. They are legal, as long there are no minors involved and the adults are consenting.
As Miller examines her tattoo needles, which are simply a variety of sewing needles, tilting her head back and forth in the way that dogs do when you say their names, I ask how many stick-and-pokes she has done in Oakland. I expect a vague estimate, so I am surprised when she pulls out a scrap piece of paper with names scribbled on it in pencil and different colored pens, a list of every tattoo she has given, recorded on the back of a water bill that is now over three years old.
“None of them have gotten infected,” she says after I ask how all her stick-and-pokes have turned out. “But who’s to say you aren’t going to get blood poisoning?” My eyes must be revealing my obvious concern, because she volunteers a list of her precautionary measures: sterilization swabs on everything, every step of the way, and new needles every time. Plus, she says, Miller’s own first stick-and-poke—a squid on the bottom her foot—was done in a dirty basement of a house in West Oakland when she was close to blacked-out drunk, and that went fine, with no infection or sickness. I guess I should be okay, then. Right?
Shortly after Miller got the now half-faded squid, she was inspired and looked up stick-and-poke directions on the Internet. The first stick-and-poke she gave was a raptor on her friend’s foot. “It was terrible,” she said. After that she practiced on the balls of her feet and her toes, because ink doesn’t stay on the parts of your feet that shed callous constantly. Her early attempts quickly faded and left her a clean canvas to start again. It took her about a year to get good, she says, but lettering is still not her strong suit. She doesn’t aspire to work out of a shop. She likes the simplicity of stick-and-pokes. Without a tattoo gun, the process takes longer and is more of a personal experience. “It’s primal,” she says.
Miller is explaining all this to me as she places a needle at the eraser end of a #2 pencil with the top half-inch of the sharp part of the needle extending past the pencil. She wraps sea-foam green thread around the base of the needle and the pencil, and assures me that she will further stabilize the needle with tape. But first she wraps the end of the needle—the part sticking out past the pencil—with the same thread, creating a stopper, or a small ball of thread with a very small amount of the tip of the needle poking out. The stopper, she explains, keeps the needle from going too far into my skin (whew) and holds the ink, which lets her avoid re-dipping on every poke. The tape she uses to further stabilize the needle is nothing fancy—a roll of scotch tape that stays in her striped bag, without the cheap plastic dispenser it normally comes on.
With the makeshift tattoo gun assembled, she sterilizes the gray top of an old cylindrical film container, which holds the ink. She ordered the professional tattoo ink online, looking for something with the least amount of chemical additives in it. She eventually asked for advice from a professional tattoo artist. If we were in jail, and no ink from a ballpoint pen was available, we could burn the bottom of a Styrofoam cup and scrape the black char off until there was enough material for a tattoo. “That is terrifying,” she says, as she pulls one of my couch cushions onto her lap to use to stabilize my ankle, the target of the homemade tattoo.
After one last long and thorough wipe with the sterilization napkin, everything is ready to go. I already have a fair number of tattoos, including a half-sleeve, and I am not expecting this one to be any more or less painful than a tattoo from a gun. I am wrong.
Miller rapidly stabs my ankle with the needle, going over each line several times, stopping occasionally to dip the needle in the ink and wipe my sore skin with pieces of dry paper towels. It hurts worse than a professional tattoo, by a great deal, and takes longer. Even though I can see that only a couple millimeters of the needle is going into my skin, it feels like Miller is relentlessly shoving the needle inches into my bones and the tendons of my ankle. But you can’t stop getting a tattoo that is halfway done, so I breathe heavily and lean my head back on the armchair of my couch.
I realize halfway through that this should be a much quicker process, but Miller and I are talking and we pause often to laugh about our most recent dates. The same tattoo delivered in a shop would have been completed in less than five minutes.
The lines of the tattoo start out as a series of dots—3 0 3 0 7, the zip code of my long time home in Atlanta—until there are enough dots to make consistent lines. Stick-and-pokes are pointillism for tattoos. The lines look good, but they aren’t perfectly straight. Though Miller does a pretty good job keeping the lines a consistent thickness, it’s not as sharp as a professional tattoo. But it has the do-it-yourself air that typifies stick-and-pokes in Oakland. Miller adds my name to her old water bill and puts it back in her striped bag.
“When I started this list,” she says, “I didn’t think I would be filling all of it.”
I’m number 32.