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Cover up Tattoos
No one likes to admit they made a mistake. But many of us have made them and unfortunately mistakes make in ink are permanent. You may have thought Cindy or Darryl would be “the one”. You may have thought you’d really love Daffy Duck forever. Now you’ve been looking at the aftermath of those choices for too long and it’s time to do something about it. So how do tattoo cover ups work? What designs work best and are there some tattoos that simply can not be covered?
Let’s start with something you need to know about tattoos. When you get tattooed, the tattoo ink is dispersed about a millimeter under your skin and remains in a layer called the dermis, which is under the epidermis or the layer of skin you can see. When you tattoo over existing pigment you’re not covering it, you’re actually mixing the pigment of the new tattoo with the old one. As it heals the ink from your new tattoo (the cover up) will have settled into the dermis layer and merged with the old ink. Because of this it’s very important to plan carefully what the design of the camouflaging tattoo will be. I say camouflage to drive home the idea of hiding a tattoo rather that trying to pound black over the top of it to cover it. Black is the easiest way to cover an old tattoo, as well as dark colors like blues and greens, but don’t use them as a crutch. A good camouflage won’t require areas of solid black to cover an old tattoo.
The best approach is to look at the old tattoo and draw your new one using shapes from the old design. Use tracing paper or acetate to copy the old tattoo from the skin with a sharpie or skin marker, place the sketch on a light table, and place another clean sheet on top of that sketch and consider many different options for the cover. Incorporation of the old tattoo is a much better approach than trying to smother it. I’m not talking about drawing a new tattoo and using the old one as a center piece, I’m just saying that if you got name in script and you’re covering it with a flower, think about how those script strokes can be incorporated into the flowing pedals of your flower. Look at the shape and flow of the old tattoo and use those patterns in your new one. When coloring the new tattoo, use high contrast to lead the eye around the piece, distracting from where the actual covered tattoo is. The best cover ups are the ones that don’t look like an obvious cover.
A few people might wonder why you can’t just cover an old tattoo with pure white…well you can to an extent, but it takes time. Because the white eventually settles in the same layer as the old colors, it’s never going to make a tattoo invisible, but with patience it can really improve to final outcome of your cover.
If you’re the artist actually doing the cover up, and you’re working on a client you know will return in the future, you don’t necessarily have to try to knock the whole thing out in one sitting. Spend your first session working on the details of the piece; strengthen any lines that are intended to mask the old tattoo, work on establishing high contrast in the new tattoo. When you’re done, pack white over any exposed parts of the tattoo you’re covering. After healing, it’s been proven that white can lighten the old pigments by about 10%, and if it’s something very dark, then that’s enough to make it worth while. If you’re working on a very large piece that takes two or three sessions, you’re talking about lightening the old pigment by 30% or more if you take the time to load white over the exposed areas after every session. A good cover won’t come cheap and will likely require a few sessions with your tattoo artist.
If you take anything away from what you’ve read here, whether you’re artist or collector, the most important thing to remember is that tattooing has progressed by leaps and bounds over the years, and the skill level of artists today has never been greater. Gone are the days of trying to blot out a tattoo you no longer want with something bigger and composed of primarily solid black. As an artist, take time to plan out a cover up that may take a few sessions, and in the end your client will be eternally grateful. If you’re the client, discuss your options with a tattooer you trust. If you don’t feel good about what the final outcome will be, ask around and find another artist that really enjoys the challenge of a cover up and will make the most out of yours. If you’re a new artist trying your hand at tattooing, make sure you’re continuing to educate yourself by reading the articles we write or buying the books we offer, watching the videos we produce and using the practice tools we provide so that your next tattoo isn’t someone else’s future cover up.