The Rise of Handmade Tattoos

Tattoos are popular at Bryn Mawr, particularly stick and poke style

By Rachael Lightstone

Frankie Bliss looks like a stereotypical hipster-style college student. She wears denim overalls and an oversized jacket; choppy blonde bangs fall messily over her thick-rimmed glasses. The tiny tattoos which speckle her arms catch the eye as she lifts her hands to make a point or to brush away a stray bit of hair.

A multitude of bees dot her left arm. Tiny flowers and designs speckle the other. A miniature skateboard adorns one wrist, and a line drawing of the famous painting The Kiss peeks out from her sleeve. Bliss reported that she wasn’t sure exactly how many tattoos she has, but it was up to fifteen.

“Not many of mine have really significant meaning to me, other than I just really like them”, she said. “I think it’s a really cool representation to have things I love visibly on my skin… I love them and they help me love myself more.”

Bliss is not alone. Today, it is fairly common for young adults to have tattoos. A 2010 report from the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of millennials had a tattoo, and most of them had more than one. And according to the National Institute of Health, almost three-quarters of tattooed people got their first ink during the traditional college years, 18 to 22 years of age.

Bryn Mawr students’ reasons for getting tattoos vary as much as the people themselves. Cassandra Paiz, class of 2021, chose hers from her favorite artist’s Facebook page offering half-off on certain designs. Cassie Paul, class of 2018, got hers as a memorial to her dog that passed away. Anna West, class of 2021, chose her favorite flower as a reminder of home.

For many of them, empowerment was the major force behind their choice.

“I’ve always been really into reclamation of your body and your skin,” Bliss said, “because I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with my body image and myself, and I felt like one really good way to do that was through putting art that I liked on my body.”

Some students, who asked to remain unnamed, said they placed tattoos over self-harm scars as a way of healing and reclaiming that part of the body.

For West, getting a tattoo was the perfect way to heal after a bad break-up. “Honestly, I’ve been through lots of therapy, but that’s the best way I’ve found,” she quipped. “The most therapeutic was just getting a tattoo.

But although some of the tattoos were impulse decisions, there was never any worry about future regret.

“I don’t think I’ll ever regret a tattoo, honestly, even 50 years down the line…” said Paiz. “Because I’ll look back at the tattoo and know this is where I was in my life, this is what was happening in my life and this is how I was feeling, because the tattoo comes with memories and experiences and emotions.

According to Bliss, reactions to her tattoos are mixed.

“You do get some s— for having tattoos, which… you know, it is what it is”, she said. “And also I think I’m lucky to be a white, cis, female-presenting person, because if I were a person of color it would definitely change people’s opinions about me and the reaction that people had.”

But the most common reaction is, by far, ‘How are you going to get a job’. To many college students, this is a valid concern. Although tattoos have gained popularity in the wider world, there are still many places where they still seen as unacceptable. In many occupations, visible tattoos can harm employment prospects.

Most students placed their tattoos in areas that would be easily covered for interviews and business opportunities.

“I don’t know what I want to do as an occupation,” said one student. “So, I should put them in places that I can easily cover up. And I think the more I got, and the more I talked to people, the more I realized that the stigma surrounding tattoos and what they mean in terms of your value as an employee is very much changing…”

Student with a stick-and-poke Bryn Mawr lantern tattoo

But the most interesting trend with tattoo art on college campuses isn’t the content or the art style, it’s how the tattoo was done. A surprising number of students said that their tattoos were stick and poke, DIY tattoos done by themselves or by their friends. With a single needle and ink, a talented stick and poke artist can turn a series of dots into an integrated design. You can even buy kits off Amazon.

For many people, the draw was cost. A professional tattoo can cost hundreds of dollars; a stick and poke can be free. And tattoo parlors have minimum fees, so even tiny designs can cost over $50.

“I really am into the idea of oh, I did that and it’s on my body now,” said a student, class of 2021, who asked to remain unnamed. “I physically transformed that part of my body, which I think is pretty cool.”

Bliss’s first tattoo was a stick-and-poke when she was 14. A friend did it in her living room with a sewing needle and ink. She ended up liking the way they looked, and eventually she started doing them on herself. As she describes the process, she traces the outline of a face on her right arm. It is an obvious stick and poke, but one that’s well done.

Now, she enjoys doing stick and pokes for other people. “I like doing it on other people too because it’s such a bonding experience, putting your art on their body forever…” she said. “I think it’s a really cool and kind-of sacred thing, because it’s a reclamation of your body, you can help other people do that.”

She paused, before concluding. “I think tattoos are a way to relate to other people and its sort of a bonding thing. It just is a really cool way to feel connected to the people around you.”