Even though most tattoo shops use guns to etch art onto customers, Samantha Bissell of Spirit Ink is looking to the past for the future of tattoos — reviving an ancient hand-poking technique that fosters authenticity and spirituality.

Bissell was fascinated with everything to do with tattoos and began studying when she was a young girl. She read hundreds of tattoo programs and did a lot of research which led her to adopt the ancient practice.

Three years ago Bissell came to Canada from Manchester without anticipating owning her own tattoo shop. She says if she were left to her own devices she would have never opened Spirit Ink.

 “Because I suffer with extreme anxiety and pushing myself to do something like this was kind of way out of my comfort zone, but I’ve had so many people being so enthusiastic and so supportive to the point of pushing me along, and kind of really giving me the confidence to go actually I’m going to give this a shot” 

Although the road to opening Spirit Ink was not easy, Bissell had a lot of supporters along the way. 

“Because, you are only here once and we don’t know how long we’re here for, so I just want to be able to do what I enjoy doing, and show my that if you’ve got a dream, you’ve gotta go for it, because there’s no such thing as failure, just lessons to be learned,” says Bissell.

The art of hand-poking 

Hand-poking is a process that involves artists pushing a single dot of ink into the skin to connect to the previous dot, resulting in sharp and precise lines.

“There are quite a few areas that still use this method of tattooing, like in New Zealand the Maoris, they use the hand tapping technique — the Buddhist monks use a similar hand-poking technique. So, it really kind of harks back to the original way of tattooing, it was the way it was originally done.” 

In opposition to the machine method of tattooing, Bissell finds the hand-poking technique has many different characteristics to lend to a more spiritual experience of receiving body art. She explains the lack of noise is one of the main differences.

“I find that people find the atmosphere nice and relaxing and they tend to open up, and we tend to have quite deep and meaningful conversations.” 


Samantha Bissell and Matt Garlough are long time friends, here they share a laugh while she performs her hand-poked method on an existing tattoo of Garlough’s. Bissell believes that the single dot-by-dot approach is quiet and adds to the spiritual aspect of receiving body art by this method. Photo by Marcy Morris

Another thing Bissell loves about hand-poking is the fact that it is less painful for her customers.

“The best way I can explain the feeling is if you have ever plucked at a hair, it’s basically that over and over again — that level of pain.” 

Angela Janusc, a customer and friend of Bissell who had recently received a hand-poked tattoo, says the pain is about a one out of 10 on her pain scale.

“With a regular tattoo, depending on where you get it, for me it’s like a six or seven. I would recommend hand-poking tattoos when it comes to smaller designs.” 

Janusc received one of the most time-consuming tattoos Bissell has done, which spanned over 35 hours. The tattoo is comprised of zodiac symbols — a Capricorn goat and beneath two Aries rams which represent each of Janusc’s children.

“The Capricorn is my older son and then the two Aries are my twins,” Janusc says.

Another significant difference between machine and hand-poking is the healing process. Bissell believes the gentle dot-by-dot approach results in less trauma to the skin with minimal scabbing.

“If you have scabbed, that means somebody has either gone too deep or they have gone over it too much — there shouldn’t be enough trauma to cause deep scabs, so I don’t get any of that with hand-poking” 

In addition to the spiritual and calm method Bissell stands by, she also has specific rules about the tattoo’s,  customers receive. The practise stems from her personal experiences receiving tattoos before her adoption of the hand-poking method.

“I think that every tattoo should be very specific and unique to the person — I’ve done it myself, I’ve chosen a piece of flash and then found out a few weeks later that one of my friends has exactly the same tattoo as me! It just takes away from any meaning that tattoo may have meant.” 

Samantha Bissell carefully pokes ink into Matt Garlough’s design the two came up with to lay over a band logo tattoo Garlough had prior to his appointment with Bissell. This is not the first tattoo he has received from Bissell, but according to Garlough, it is the first tattoo he could see her complete, as the majority he received are on his back. Photo by Marcy Morris

In her policy, she states customers should have a clear idea of what they want. In addition, the first appointment with Spirit Ink is a consultation where Bissell discusses the design.

“It’s a very personal thing and if you’re putting your trust in someone to give you something that is going to be on your skin for the rest of your life; it’s no simple thing to do, it takes a lot of thought, and it takes a lot of trust for somebody to offer you their skin.” 

Bissell also has a policy where she does not repeat tattoos unless it is a matching design or a charity design. She just completed a charity fundraiser with Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue, founded by Kim Hessel.

The overall intent was to both raise awareness for her method of tattooing as well as an appreciation for the animal rescue organization.

“I’ve heard so many amazing things about Kim, who runs the charity, so I really am honoured to be able to help in any way…it costs a lot of money to help those animals, so any part I can play in helping I am over the moon to be able to do that,” she says.

Heaven Can Wait, Animal Rescue Foundation, is in High River, Alta., where Hessel says the charity event in February was to celebrate love for animals.

“We’ve never done any fundraiser like that, and I wasn’t sure how well it would be received, I mean, obviously you need to be a tattoo person because they are permanent. But it was super well received, I couldn’t get over it.” 

The event did exceptionally well according to Hessel and there was a tremendous outpour of happy customers who reached out to her praising the good work done by Bissell.

Bissell has revived an ancient form of hand-poking tattoos within the province. She is just at the beginning of her journey with hopes the practice will gain in popularity to expand.

“I would like my own little space, and if you know the tattoo community has grown for hand poking by then, we might have a couple more people doing it as well.” 

 Editor: Monique LaBossiere | mlabossiere@cjournal.ca 

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