“A lot of big tattoo artist men with big machines can be quite an intimidating experience. I know it was for me when I got my first tattoo,” says Helena Norman, independent stick and poke tattoo artist.
On a dark December evening, tattoo artist Helena Norman brings me through her flat in central Edinburgh to a tiny home tattoo studio.
I’m greeted on the way by today’s client and Helena’s friend, Bruno. Her rabbit, Sesame, approaches me briefly before choosing to ignore me entirely.
A fourth-year ecology student, Helena casually runs down strict lifetime monogamy amongst insects while stencilling a design onto Bruno’s ankle. Also a final year student, Bruno sits, leg outstretched, on a mattress similar to what you might find in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, and the pair pick over the tribulations of coursework in the run up to the Christmas break.
Helena tells me how she got into the tattoo business:
“I started how I think most sort of self-taught stick and poke people start – I just wanted tattoos and I was like I can’t really afford to get lots of tattoos, I’ll just do it myself.
“I gave myself some really terrible tattoos in first year. Some really shocking ones which I’ve since gone over, and some to my poor flatmates as well.
“Over summer I needed a job, so I decided to tattoo a couple of my friends and cover the cost of needles and equipment and stuff. It just sort of kicked off from there.”
Today, Helena is tattooing a small leafy potted plant on Bruno’s ankle. It fits right into the array of tattoos available to view on her Instagram account, @ouchy_slouchy, which offers many plant and nature-based designs.
There is also an eclectic menagerie on offer – a dog and cat chatting on a sofa; a cat painting a self-portrait; human-like crouching creatures with plants sprouting from their heads.
Everything looks charmingly hand-drawn and original, like doodles in a notebook.
Unlike typical tattooing, stick and poke is done without the use of an electric gun. It is exactly as it sounds: a needle is dipped in ink and applied to the skin by poking, one dot at a time.
Stick and poke tattoos have the same longevity as any other. Whether or not they hurt more depends on the person and the tattoo placement. At least in Helena’s estimation.
“They hurt way more,” according to Bruno.
“It’s quite sore. For like 5 minutes you’re like aw, this is a piece of cake. And then, every once in a while, it’s like oh my god this sucks, like it’s hitting bone or something, or the skin gets really raw.
“But I’m in very capable hands with Helena.”
While needling ink into his skin, Helena’s manner is indeed competent but gentle.
But why choose the stick and poke method over traditional electric tattoo guns?
“It’s slower but you get to know who you’re tattooing – it’s more of like a nice little experience. And I’m quite lucky that my tattoos attract very nice people. Everyone I tattoo, I like them as a person.
“I personally have found that it’s a more personal experience and I think that’s especially important for queer people and people who just typically don’t feel as comfortable in a tattoo studio as a cis-het white person.”
The bespoke nature of not just the tattoo but the entire interaction between artist and client makes the experience feel safe, relaxing and enjoyable, even from the perspective of a bystander.
In an industry filled with the sound of whirring tattoo guns and an enduring hint of machismo, it’s easy to see how Helena’s cramped home studio serves as an oasis of calm.