Millennials are ditching the professionals for cheap ink any time and anywhere, writes Sarah Downs.

Matt Trevelyan, 22, leans back and tries not to wince. His upper thigh is being repeatedly punctured with an inked needle. Listen closely and you can hear the pop, pop, pop, of angry flesh.

After 30 minutes — with breaks for some sun and cigarettes — an eagle joins his fast growing collection of "stick-and-pokes". Keep up: that's the gruff street name these days for homemade tattoos. They're not unlike a prison scrawl, and hurt like hell to acquire, so why are they popular with young people?

"That stuck well," exhales Trevelyan, inspecting his illustrated thighs — a blank canvas only three months ago. "Yeah. I was getting in there pretty hard. That's not going anywhere," replies Amy McGrath, 27. Today the self-taught jabbers are trading ink.

"Stick-and-poke is where it's at. It's cheap and fun and you can do it in your house with your mates," says Trevelyan, who first got hooked at a party. "It looked easy. I thought it be cool to master a new skill. I woke up with four the next day and by the end of the week, I had six."


His new hobby has become somewhat of a creative outlet for the industrial design graduate, who has struggled to find a job in the industry. He now has 25 spontaneous-looking doodles: a skull, a palm tree, the words "Live fast, die young".

"It's all very sketched, which is the current thing."

"I like how messy they are," says McGrath, tracing a faded scribble: "RIP 2015." Her first attempt was done with a sewing needle and Indian ink from the supermarket on New Year's Eve. "It says something stupid and it's terrible quality but I don't regret it. It's a memory."

McGrath got her first stick-and-poke at 17, promising to herself to keep small. "Now I'm covered in them. I'm pretty close to 100. My legs are a write-off."

Being able to tattoo herself became addictive, even though, she says, "hand-done hurts more, definitely. It's slower." McGrath now permanently puts her mark on customers found through Instagram in her apartment's spare room, which is "less intimidating than a tattoo shop". What's the appeal? For her mostly young female clientele, a stick-and-poke is "really going to piss Mum and Dad off".

Tattoos have been a skin-deep language in every culture, for centuries. From the Japanese Tebori style, Maori's ta moko practice and underground Russian prison ink, tattoos have a deep history preceding today's machine versions. In 1891 American Samuel O'Reilly patented the first machine, softening this hand-done aesthetic. Today, electric tattoos are comfortably mainstream. More people are choosing to get a tattoo, some more than one. In New Zealand, the latest survey found one in three of us are inked.

"When I was young we got tattoos to fit out. To express yourself in a way not like other people," says Dan Andersen, from Sacred Tattoo. "But now I feel like people are getting them to fit in to their peer group. If you don't have tattoos you're the odd one out in a way."

It's not surprising then perhaps, that the latest trend is a return to tattooing's rudimentary roots. If electric tattoos are no longer provoking the conservative among us, maybe bad tattoos can.

Patch Fay, from Black Cat Tattoo, says stick-and-pokes are the total opposite of their machine equivalents. "Not everyone wants a perfect colour realism portrait. People like the handmade quality or the goofiness about it."

Andersen agrees: "It's almost like the worse it is, the more rebellious it is. Not only are they drawn badly, they're poorly executed. I've seen cool hand-done stuff from a more tribal or organic place. But now I see a celebration of how bad can this be."

Andersen, a two-decade industry veteran, blames social media. "It would be a very contained thing without it," he says. Stick-and-poke artists such as Tati Compton and Grace Neutral have racked up thousands of followers on Instagram. Celebrities Rihanna and Cara Delevingne flood Pinterest and Tumblr with their hand-done symbols. There are even YouTube tutorials for DIY tattoos.

"If you see these little scratchy things in real life it's not very inspiring. But you see it in a cool photo on a young attractive person and it's a bit rebel," says Andersen. "But you've got to ask why this person has 10,000 followers. Is it because the tattoos are awesome or is it the whole package?" He adds: "I'm willing to see the creative in anything but when something becomes popular for the sake of it, I don't see any value in it. I've dedicated 20 years to trying to do aesthetically beautiful stuff, so as an older tattooist, I just don't get it. But people can do what they like, it's their body."

He does warn, however, of the risk of disease and infections that may occur when breaking skin outside of a sterile environment. "People think they put gloves on and then that's cool. But if you start digging too deep and use dirty gear, doing homemade tattoos in your bedroom can be worse than unprotected sex. Blood-to-blood contact is extraordinarily risky."

For many tattooists, hand-done is a common starting point, but they are wary of remaining self-taught. "It's really easy to pick up bad mistakes. I did that as well and had to spend a while unlearning. It's a pretty serious business if you're going to give someone hepatitis," says Fay. At his Kingsland studio, most of the fix-up jobs come from home. "People may choose homemade as a cheaper option but it doesn't always go to plan. They come to us to fix it or have it lasered off."

Sera Helen, from Two Hands Tattoo in Ponsonby, says tattooing at home has its down-falls. "You think you're an island and don't need anything else, but you need to be aware of the dangers and what you're responsible for. It's cool to start at home but it's important to keep learning. It's an honour to be able to tattoo someone. I just hope they respect the person they are tattooing. Respect themselves and their art form."

Even so, the absurd and spontaneous act of tattooing anytime and anywhere may be stick-and-poke's biggest appeal. But some say it's not all-late nights and safety pins.

"There's a reason why most tattoo shops hate stick-and-pokes. Most of them are done shittily, with poor hygiene conditions," says artist Gabriella Bowden, 21.

"They're written off as a gritty art school thing." But, she says, "a tattoo and a stick-and-poke should look the same if you do it well. There are some amazing people doing them properly and there's something very cool about its manual aspect." Bowden is cashing in on its youth appeal, tattooing paying Instagram patrons, which funds her fine art from home. But she has standards, she says. "I refuse to do the usual art school shit people want on their bodies. No 'forever alone' hearts or slices of pizza. I would never do something that I thought someone would regret."

She doesn't however, follow her rules when it comes to tattooing herself. "No thought goes into mine at all. I like that I can stab them on to me any given night. My parents hate them but they've come round, because parents have to come round." Bowden says they shouldn't worry too much though about stick-and-poke staying around. "Like any refined art form, machine tattooing will long outlast its half-done spawn."

As for Trevelyan, he's not stopping until his collection hits at least 100. "I like waking up and being like, 'today I'm going to change my look and it's going to be permanent'. What's the point regretting it once it's done? F*** it. My body, my rules."