The Girl with the Hand-Poked Tattoos

Hand-poked tattoos are on the rise. We sit down with two female artists who bring their own unique styles to the table. 

Back in the Sukhothai period, warriors would be given tattoos as a protective charm before they go into a battle. These tattoos were believed to possess magical powers that would keep the warriors from harm’s way and ensure their safe return from battlefields. Known as “yantra,” this style of traditional tattoo was typically administered by monks or seasoned practitioners. Tattoos often get a bad reputation, especially among the older generations who tend to associate them with slaves and criminals.

In countries like Japan, tattoos are deeply linked to yakuza and the criminal underworld, which is why they’re frowned upon, creating a stigma that’s still prevalent today. In Japan, it’s still common for people with tattoos to be prohibited from entering public spaces.

As for Thailand, although some still regard tattoos as unsavory, younger people are embracing this art form with their arms wide open. A boom in popularity means that everywhere you look, there’s at least one tattoo shop on every street corner. As tattoos evolve, the attitude towards them shifts with time and a new crop of female tattoo artists starts to appear on the scene. This tattoo sisterhood extends beyond the traditional method of tattooing and includes a lesser-known practice of hand-poked tattoos.

Since hand-poked tattoos are done without a machine, they require time and patience. The difficulty level depends on each tattoo design and the artist must be extremely precise with how much weight they apply to their tattooing. As for painfulness, hand-poked tattoos are said to hurt a lot less and heal much quicker than regular ones. XYLEM Tattoo Studio is the first of its kind in Thailand to offer hand-poked tattoos. Today, we’re catching up with Mutita Suwannarit and Kassandra Brain, two up-and-coming artists behind the studio, and talk about their backgrounds and, of course, all things hand-poked tattoos.

Mutita Suwannarit (Tai)

Can you introduce yourself? What’s your name and what are you up to right now?

Hi, I’m Tai. I work as a tattoo artist and I also do some modeling.

How did you get started on your tattooing journey?

Well, my boyfriend is a tattoo artist. I used to practice tattooing with him, but then I got hooked myself.

Why are you interested in hand-poked tattoos, specifically?

I practiced with a tattoo machine at first. It wasn’t until after I saw hand-poked tattoos overseas that I decided to give it a try. I then grew to love it and prefer it to the more traditional method. Most of what I do is self-taught. Actually, this style of tattoo goes by a few different names like stick ’n’ poke, hand tattoo, and D.I.Y tattoo.

Some people have said that hand-poked tattoos share similarities with the yantra tattoos done by local masters like Ajarn Nhoo. What’s your take on this?

Apart from the inking process, it’s actually very different, both in terms of tools and techniques. We use the same needles used in a tattoo machine, so you can choose how big you want yours to be. The needles used for yantra tattoos are an old school type—the same one used by the Japanese in the old days.

What about the pain and the result? Are they different?

The result, not so much. As for the pain, hand-poked tattoos hurt less although they take longer to finish. It also depends on each person’s skin and the location of a tattoo. Different spots hurt differently. Some even heal quicker.

What are some of the limitations of hand-poked tattoos?

I don’t think there’s any. To me, it’s a form of craftsmanship, just like normal tattooing.

How’s the feedback so far?

It’s definitely getting better. More and more people are taking interest in this style of tattoo and I start to see more female artists taking it up.

Why do you think some people choose a hand-poked tattoo?

Some have already been tattooed by a machine before, so they’re probably curious and want to know what it's like to be hand-poked. It’s just another way to get inked.

Anything you want to say about the tattoo scene in Thailand?

It’s definitely a growing trend. Each person has their own style and tattoos now are more accessible than ever with the internet. It’s not uncommon to see designs from 10-20 years ago back in vogue.

Although tattoos are no longer a novelty in Thailand, some are still biased against them. How would you like to change their perspective?

I wish that they would be more accepting. Some people still regard tattoos as something bad, but I would like them to see it as fashion or an art form.

Kassandra Brain (Kassy)

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Kassy, Kassandra Brain. I’m a co-owner of XYLEM Tattoo Studio, a tattoo apprentice and I also dabble in DJ-ing and modeling

How did you get involved with tattooing?

My boyfriend and I love tattoos. We happened to have tattoo kits lying around and I was like, why not, let’s do this! I didn’t have a chance to get an apprenticeship with the artist who gave me tattoos, so I had to practice on my friends and myself.

What is your tattoo style?

For me personally, I like cute and minimal tattoos. I love art and I try to design my tattoos with a touch of femininity. I don’t have a tattooing style per se, but minimal designs are what I’m good at. Pretty much like the ones you see on me.

What’s the difference between a male and female tattoo artist?

I don’t think there’s a difference, only maybe female customers trust us more because they feel more comfortable with us. Apart from that, I don’t think we’re that different. Each artist has their own style.

How do you see your future as a tattoo artist?

I want to continue to improve, so I need to keep honing my craft. It’s not easy, being a tattoo artist takes a lot of practice. I’ve been doing it for almost two years now and most of the designs that I get to do are small, so they’re still not very challenging.

Tell us about XYLEM Tattoo Studio

I’d always wanted to open a tattoo shop, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. We were already tattooing at home, kind of through word of mouth. One day, someone told me about this space, so I decided to check it out. As soon as I saw it, I was like “ok, perfect.” The price was also right so everything fell into places. Then, two months later, we had to deal with this covid closure. We’re starting to bounce back now, though.

If you’re interested in getting some hand-poked ink from these talented ladies, head to XYLEM Tattoo Studio (4th floor, Sukhumvit 51) or check out their Instagram. Reservations recommended.