Stick-and-Poke Tattoos and the Intimacy of Discomfort

Getting stuck with artist Lauren Dunkin (aka Dopetoast)

Lauren Dunkin is a classically trained artist of many media (watercolors, acrylic, ceramics, and more), but right now her primary canvas is skin. She began her journey as a stick-and-poke tattoo artist in the wake of a long night out with friends, after they’d hyped each other up about getting tattoos until there was no turning back.

Photo by Sean Mathis

Using a sewing needle and a bottle of India ink, she tattooed her friends by hand. Now, eight years later, she’s the most recent artist to sign as a resident at No Good Tattoo, a new studio on Springdale Road, and she’s still tattoo machine-free. No Good Tattoo founder Emily Ng says she only reaches out to artists she admires and whose art she would want on her skin. “I have kept Lauren in the loop about No Good Tattoo since the beginning,” she adds. “She sees the process of tattooing as a meaningful connection.” I scheduled an appointment with Dunkin and met her at her private studio on a Friday afternoon.

Dunkin’s studio has off-white walls eclectically decorated with artwork and pictures. My home for the next hour-and-a-half was a portable tattoo table, cushioned for comfort. After accepting a glass of water, Dunkin pulled out a binder thick with tattoo designs and handed me a page with the drawing we’d agreed upon: a succulent tilted slightly on its side (in memory of the umpteenth plant I’d killed). The drawing, while simple, emanated a unique perspective and confidence which comes with practice. “It’s easy to draw something straight from life,” she told me later, “but when you go and add your own take on it, it just makes it a little more personal to you.”

Source: Instagram @dopetoast

Dunkin grew up in Harlingen, Texas, near Brownsville. She comes from a long line of artists beginning with her great-grandmother, who was an art teacher and an active member of the Brownsville Art Association. Incubated in this environment, it’s no wonder her grandmother and mother paint too. As a child, Dunkin says she carried around a number of notebooks, a kind of “visual diary,” from elementary school to high school. Dunkin took six art classes her senior year to bulk up her portfolio for art school. She attended the Art Institute in Austin for graphic design but ultimately dropped out. “There was a lot I liked about [graphic design], but at the end of the day I was still getting in trouble for drawing on the desks at school,” Dunkin says. “I wasn’t wanting to create on a computer. I needed something more tangible.”

Source: Instagram @dopetoast

What’s more tangible than needling permanent ink under a layer of skin? Dunkin set me up on the tattoo table and I positioned my arm on a pillow. She rubbed disinfectant on the area we’d picked on my forearm and shaved away some hair. The tip of the needle was thinner than I expected, almost imperceptible until dipped in ink. None of the tattoos I’d received had been painful; still, I wasn’t prepared for such a gentle (and frankly quiet) pinch and pull. Dunkin held my skin firm and methodically followed each line, her eyeglasses inches from my forearm.

Source: Instagram @dopetoast

“There’s something a little bit more raw to be sitting with a slow, small discomfort for a while with someone,” Dunkin said referring to stick-and-poke tattoos. “You get people coming in who are like, ‘I’m getting a divorce and this is my fuck you tattoo,’ or, ‘I’m going through something right now and I want to take ode to this time in my life.’ When I look at [my tattoos], I remember who I went with to get it, what was going on with me during that time in my life, who I was spending the most time with, what I was into.”

Dunkin has tattooed full-time on and off the past six years. The residency at No Good Tattoo will allow her to see clients more regularly, though the fact that she’s made it this far without a big studio is a testament to her work. “I’m still not confident as to how it happened, but it did and I’m really happy about it,” she said.

When the tattoo was finished, Dunkin had me stand in the light so she could take a picture on her phone and her polaroid camera for Instagram. It’s a strange feeling, to enter as a client and leave as a friend. “When you get older,” she told me on my way out, “your grandchildren are going to look at you, and instead of showing them photos you’re going to tell them stories about that time in your life when this random chick put this weird tattoo on your arm.”

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