As a tattoo artist, a lot of people contact me about transforming their existing tattoos, scars or varicose veins. Many of my clients whose old tattoos or scars I cover up say to me, “You know, I had to do a bunch of digging to find a tattoo artist who would tattoo over my old tat or scars. Most artists I contacted wouldn’t even consider the idea, much less talk to me about it. I’m so glad I found you and that you weren’t afraid to help me!”
Tattooing over existing tattoos, scars and varicose veins is tricky; the success of the finished piece depends on several factors. If it’s old ink, I need to know the type of tattoo it is, if it’s scarred at all and how much un-inked skin is around it. For scars, I want to know what type of scar, if it’s solid and flat or raised, bumpy or mushy. For both existing tats and scars, I need to know how old and dark it is, it’s location on the body and the type of new imagery the client wants to use. Some scars, like burn or road rash scars have healed down badly; they’re gnarly and bunchy, which makes them hard to cover successfully. Stretch marks or scars that are too squishy and too close together will make tattooing over them difficult. Some stretch marks will not take ink at all. But old surgery scars, mastectomy or SI (self inflicted) scars are often flat enough to take ink if they are old enough. Those types of scars are good candidates for a decent cover up or camouflage tattoo. I’ve had a lot of success tattooing over them and over breast implant removal scars, as well. As long as the skin around them is fairly taut and undamaged, varicose veins are usually no problem at all to tattoo over. I need to see the old tattoo or scar(s) in person, to run my fingers over it, to see if it might work for a cover up. I can get a good idea from photos people email me but it’s still important for me to feel the tat or scar to know if I can camouflage it or not. If the existing tattoo or scar(s) is located on an area of the body that doesn’t take ink well, (like knees, elbows, etc.) tattooing over it may be impossible.
The type of imagery used to cover over or camouflage an old tattoo or scar(s) is also important. Images that are based in nature, that are organic, that can flow over uneven surfaces and are not rigid work the best. Imagery that is detailed and uses shading and color will be most successful. (For example, flowers like peonies, dahlias and chrysanthemums work well.) I use the “cover up formula” on old tats and scars. The formula is: the new image must be larger, detailed with lots of line work, and it needs gray shading and colors of dark value like purples, blues and greens. But it also needs a balance of colors, warm and cool tones; restricting the pallet to only blue, for example, will not be totally successful. I use the position of the old tat or scar on the body with the virgin skin around and near it. I also take into account the underlying body structure--what muscles, bones, nerves, etc. are under the old tat or scar(s). Flowers and other plant material work really well for existing tattoo and scar cover up pieces because if the tat or scar will not hold the ink uniformly, it doesn’t matter. Our eyes are so used to looking at organic material in all of it’s variation, we just skip right over the anomaly. Scars like mastectomy scars, in particular, are usually a dull pink, red or brown color. Some of my clients with those types of scars are concerned that the scar color is too dark and are worried that they won’t be coverable, but if we put floral imagery over them, it usually works wonderfully. Even if the scar(s) won’t take much ink, because we’ve used flowers that are similar in color to the scar, they’re perfectly camouflaged or transformed. When using the un-inked skin around the tat or scar(s), I place the most important part of the new image there, so that it reads the best and is most prominent.
Imagery that does NOT work well for covering up old tats or scars are: photos or portraits with faces, tribal and henna style imagery with only positive or negative space (using only black ink), and rigid geometric shapes like squares, stars, etc. that are super recognizable and unforgiving. The new image needs to be fairly graphic. We need to use imagery that has gray shading and color in it to truly cover or camouflage the old tat or scar(s). Areas of flat colors of light value, (like yellows, pinks and reds) do not work by themselves, as they are too translucent.
Sometimes clients ask me if I can tattoo "flesh" colored ink over a scar or stretch mark(s) to "camouflage" or make it look like “regular skin again.” That will NEVER work; a scar is never going to look like virgin, untouched, or regular skin again, no matter what you do. Sometimes lasering it can smooth out a scar but the skin will never go back to the way it was before injury. And the coloration will ALWAYS be disturbed. Our skin changes in tone over time, anyway. I can not stress this enough: it is best to do regular tattooing over scars. Some clients want to know if they should laser their old tattoos before attempting to tattoo a new image over it. Most of the time, that is unnecessary. No matter what laser clinics claim, they will never be able to get all of the old ink out of the skin. And it will never again look like virgin skin, even after many treatments. The process is super painful, expensive and takes many sessions, over a long period of time. Even after it’s been lasered for a year or more, there will still be spots of old ink underneath the top layer of the skin. Even after it’s been lasered for years, the scar may not take ink well. Sometimes, lasering over an old tattoo can actually create scars in the area, which makes it even more difficult to tattoo over. So take that money and apply it towards new ink over the old tat or scar, instead of wasting it and a lot of time on laser treatments.
Cover up projects usually take several sessions, depending on the size of the old tattoo or scar(s). We need to tattoo the outline first (the general shapes) then the gray shading (for dimension) and lastly the color to finish. Each session needs at least three weeks to heal down, so the whole process demands time and patience. If the old tattoo is very dark, I may need to pump some white ink into it first, to get it to go down in value-- to turn more gray, before I can put the new imagery over it. Also, the existing tat or scar(s) may not take the ink well and we may have to put more ink into the new tattoo, after it’s initial healing, a technique called “polishing.” If you alter my design or change the colors on the drawings I present, the resulting cover up tattoo will not be as successful, so you need to trust that I know what I'm doing. I have performed many cover up tattoos and if you let me do my job without interference, I can give you a fantastic result.
For those of you who have scars and have never been tattooed before: being tattooed hurts. It's the nature of tattooing; we're inserting ink underneath the epidermal (top) layer of the skin with small needles. How much it hurts depends on: where on the body the tattoo is applied and you. If the area being tattooed is bony without a lot of muscle but lots of nerves (hands, feet, skull, flank, spine, etc.) it will hurt more. Sometimes taking an Ibuprofen anti-inflammatory pain reliever like Aleve, Advil or Motrin right before being tattooed can help with pain management. But, if you have a low tolerance for pain, and you can not remain calm and still, you are probably not a good candidate to get a tattoo, especially a large one. Seriously, if you know that you won't be able to bear being uncomfortable and in pain, you should not consider getting a tattoo. Also, some medications that restrict the release of endorphins make getting tattooed very painful, so think about what meds you're on, before you come in.
When the cover up piece is finally finished it can totally transform the old tat or scar(s) into something new and gorgeous. Clients are just delighted with the results. Many times people who have an existing tattoo that no longer resonates with them are embarrassed by it and have been hiding the old ink for a long time. Sometimes they are still happy with their existing tattoo but they want to update it, change it into something that reflects who they are now, transform it into something more meaningful for them. They contact me saying, “I’ve got to do something with this old tattoo. I don’t know what I was thinking when I got it. Can you help me?” Lots of people with scars feel so much better after they’ve been covered or camouflaged with ink; they no longer have to explain why they have scars (if the scars are visible) or how they got them. Women who’ve survived breast cancer contact me saying, “I look down at my chest and seeing the scars am reminded that I almost died. I want to look at myself and see something beautiful there, to be reminded that I am alive, I survived. Can you help me transform my scars?” To which I answer, “Absolutely. I’d be honored. Let’s have you come in and see what we can do together.”