Artists aim to make tattoos more inclusive by traditional techniques

Artists aim to make tattoos more inclusive by going back to traditional techniques. Stick-and-poke tattooing is derived from traditional forms which go back thousands of years

‘No matter how many tattoos I had, any time I walked into a tattoo shop I usually felt intimidated’

Marissa Wiebe has always had a penchant for expressing herself through art. More specifically, she says, she’s always been interested in putting “art on things.”

“I used to draw on my little brother all the time,” Wiebe said. “Drawing on the walls, or sidewalk chalk.”

That natural affinity drew her into tattooing as an adult.

Last April, she opened Myrtle Tattoos, her own tattoo parlor located in St. Stephen, N.B., where she practises her craft through the use of a needle and her hand.

Wiebe is a hand-poke tattoo artist, which means she doesn’t use a tattoo machine when applying ink on her clients’ skin.

The style, also known as stick-and-poke tattooing, is derived from traditional forms going back thousands of years. But in Western countries, the invention of electric tattoo machines in the early 20th century relegated the art almost exclusively to the underground.

Stick-and-poke tattooing

Inaccessible Tattoos

Wiebe, who identifies as queer, said the style was mostly seen among marginalized communities. But she said in recent years, its popularity beyond those communities has exploded.

“Having stick-and-poke tattoos was really about accessibility,” she said.

“Not a lot of [my friends] felt comfortable in a modern or current tattoo parlour. It’s difficult to build a relationship or have trust, especially if you have your own experiences of your body that are, in public, viewed a certain way.”

Marissa Wiebe has been tattooing since 2015, but she started doing it full-time last April.

Hilary Wood, a hand-poke tattooist from P.E.I., got into the art form based on her own experiences getting tattoos.

Wood got her first one over a decade ago and has been regularly getting new ones ever since, most of which was done with a machine.

“No matter how many tattoos I had, any time I walked into a tattoo shop I usually felt intimidated,” she said.

“A lot of the time, people think they have to put on a really brave face when they’re getting tattooed, and the physical sensation of getting tattooed and it being very painful, just that alone can bring up a lot of, you know, feelings of trauma.”

Wood and her friend, Hannah Bulman, have been running two studios under one roof in Charlottetown since 2020. Bliss Tattoo and Pokey Rae, as their businesses are respectively called, aim to offer a more inclusive alternative to more conventional tattoo parlors.

Wood said 90 percent of her clients are women, a lot of whom belong to P.E.I.’s LGBTQ community. She said one of the main draws is that the environment in her studio creates a “safe space” during what can be a really vulnerable process.

“It’s just a different kind of experience. Our studio is private…. There’s no loud buzzing of the tattoo machines. It’s very silent, very peaceful. It’s a different sensation, too, physically,” Wood said.

“[I want my clients to] feel, like, in control of the situation because, you know, I’m marking their bodies permanently. And that’s not something I take lightly.”

Wood said comfort and safety is her “number one” priority, which also means putting the health of customers first.

Stick-and-poke tattooing

In a statement, P.E.I. environmental health officials said hand-poke tattoos are safe when done by “a professional with properly sterilized equipment and quality ink in a clean space.”

Health and safety requirements for a studio offering hand-poke tattoos are the same as those for other tattoo and piercing studios on the Island. Wood and Bulman’s studio follows provincial guidelines and has been inspected by the Department of Health.

Wiebe said she follows federal and safety regulations in the sector, including those in New Brunswick. She also holds WHMIS and tattoo and piercing safety certification with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

“I think a lot of people just want to try something different or new,” Bulman said.

“And there are some great perks … like less intense healing time and [how they’re] usually a bit less painful. So I think a lot of times when people actually try it, they learn that it actually might be a better fit for them than machine tattooing.”

Hannah Bulman and Hilary Wood are at the future location of their studio, which will be moving soon.

Stick-and-poke tattooing

Bulman said hand-poke tattoo sessions are calmer, and that she really gets to know her clients during the process, in part because it takes longer.

Wood said that while a hand-poke tattooist isn’t restricted as to what they’re able create, the length of the process means designs tend to be minimalist.

“You can do, like, bigger pieces, more detailed pieces. But the thing is that it takes a really long time,” Wood said.

“If I wanted a palm-sized tattoo with lots of colour and lots of detail, it would take a machine artist, you know, an hour or two where it would take us, you know, maybe four to six hours over a two or three different sessions, at least.”

And the use of a needle doesn’t prevent artists from developing their own style.

“I do tend to go for more black and gray and kind of finer lines,” Bulman said. “Floral or natural imagery is usually what I go for. But with that being said, I’m also pretty notorious in all of my artistic hobbies to kind of change my style as I go.”

Wiebe said one of the main things that drew her to tattooing, in particular, was that it informed how she saw herself and her body.

“When I started getting my own tattoos, it felt like coming into my body. I was feeling at home in a way that I hadn’t experienced before,” Wiebe said.

She said that aspect of asserting your own identity appeals to the broader LGBTQ community too. Through her art, she said she hopes to facilitate “a conversation for people to have with their own bodies as well.”

“A lot of the folks that I’m tattooing now and the friends that I have in the communities that I’m part of real value that part of ‘Hey, tattooing allows me to express myself on the outside how I feel on the inside,'” she said.

“And that’s been so motivating for me.”