Stephanie O’Handley

Story by Laurel McLean.
Photos by Max Foley.

From symbols of strength and social power to a form of deviance or self-expression, tattoos are historically rooted within centuries of traditions from countless cultures. The diverse background of this art form significantly predates the 1890s invention of the electric tattoo machine that has become the industry standard today. Prior to the invention of this device, tattoos were primarily done by hand.

Despite the extensive background of hand poke tattoos and the method having gained a following and demand thanks to internet culture and celebrity influence, hand poke tattoos often still carry a bad reputation.

“There’s a lot of stigma around hand poke tattoos, and I really want to change that,” states Calgary-based hand poke artist Stephanie O’Handley. “I want to show people that hand poke can be this really beautiful, organic form of tattooing and that it doesn’t have to have this stigma of like jailhouse tattoos and dirty do-it-yourself stick ‘n’ pokes.”

Prison tattoos and DIY ink will be the furthest thing from your mind when you look at O’Handley’s work. Crisp, delicate lines occasionally accented with dotwork detail her contemporary blackwork tattoos. With a focus on geometric and illustrative lines, she often draws inspiration from the natural world, frequently featuring plants, animals, and mountains in her pieces.

Currently working out of Under the Gun Ink on 17th Avenue, O’Handley follows the same standards for health and safety as any other respectable tattoo artist: a meticulously sanitized work station, sporting black rubber gloves as she tattoos, and the same ink and single-use needle that would be used with a machine – simply held by hand instead.

Knowing the limitations of hand poke – such as it being much slower than machine – O’Handley describes how she specifically designs her pieces to be suited for this method by using more open space and less shading. However, hand poke artists are constantly testing the boundaries of this style.

“With all tattooing – not just hand poke – limitations are always being pushed,” explains O’Handley. “There’s a huge hand poke community on Instagram and you can see that there’s a really big range of what’s possible.”

Despite the increasing popularity of hand poke over recent years, Calgary has been slow to pick up the trend.

“In other cities – like Vancouver or Montréal – hand poke is definitely bigger. There’s just not a lot of professional hand poke going on in Calgary right now. The only other artist in a shop in Calgary who I know that’s doing it is Garth Philpott (known on Instagram as @lowpokes). He’s a huge inspiration for me.”

Having always had a passion for the arts, O’Handley grew up partaking in creative outlets ranging from crafts and cooking, to drama and drawing. And, after getting her first tattoo at age 14, O’Handley developed a fascination with the art form that precedes the time she has spent tattooing professionally.

It was a university art class, followed by the introduction to stick ‘n’ poke that launched O’Handley’s tattoo journey.

“When I first started drawing, I never had the intention of tattooing,” recalls O’Handley. “But it just kind of progressed naturally from there.”

When she first discovered stick ‘n’ poke, O’Handley realized she had all the materials required for the DIY tattoo method and decided to try it on herself – which, as she points out, is not the typical way for an artist to begin tattooing.

“Usually, as a tattoo artist, you’d start as an apprentice and be practicing on fake skin before you ever even touch another person,” says O’Handley. “But that wasn’t my route.”

However, she urges others to exercise caution when starting at home because “there are a lot of things you really have to be aware of with safety and hygiene.”

Knowing that tattoos are such a personal and permanent thing, O’Handley feels honoured to be trusted to create artwork that will last a lifetime.

“It’s such a cool thing when someone comes to me and they want my art,” shares O’Handley. “Every time I’m just so grateful. It’s really something special because it’s this shared, intimate thing between me and the person I’m tattooing.”

In parting words, O’Handley urges others to overcome the trepidation that comes with chasing their passions and creative endeavours.

“If there’s anybody who feels like they have a passion for something, it’s scary to go for it, but just do it,” encourages O’Handley. “Quitting my job to pursue tattooing has been a hard journey, but, in some ways, it’s not. A lot of doors have just been opened for me and I think that people recognize when you’re coming from a place of authenticity and they want to support you.”

“It can be scary,” she continues, “but if you’re passionate about something, you can make it happen and it’s so rewarding when you do.”

Check out Stephanie O’Handley on Instagram and her website.