Laser treatment on a tattoo

How to Plan For a Successful Cover Up Tattoo

So, many folks think that cover-up tattoos are an impossibility. To be honest, sometimes they are! But I remember some crazy projects over the years that seemed impossible because I wasn’t looking at the potential in a way that focused on the result. I kept thinking, “Oh my God. How am I going to tackle this mess?” And “What steps am I supposed to take to get the final product to a point where it passes as something valuable?”

Luckily, after many years of attempting coverups and getting comfortable with the process, I ended up with a better understanding of how the entire process works.

What Happens When You Get A Bad Tattoo

Most of the cover-up projects I have approached over the years have something in common:

  1. The tattoo was attempted by someone who was lacking experience.
  2. The aftercare given was not customized to the client’s body.
  3. The artwork applied was of poor quality.

When the tattoo is finished the result is something that may seem amazing at first but slowly loses utility as time passes. Either the initial adrenaline rush subsists and the client understands that the tattoo is really not that good or someone else let’s them know something isn’t good enough.

I more often encounter clients who are unhappy with their tattoo because someone has said something and they cannot stop filtering their interpretation through this new opinion. This encounter (or sometimes multiple encounters) take away the enjoyment the client once felt. They are left with a future that is going to focus only on what is wrong with the tattoo rather than the (hopefully) positive experience they were left with. The tattoo becomes more of a stain than an expression of one’s self.

First Steps in Fixing a Cover Up Tattoo.

Every coverup tattoo starts with a client walking in the door, sending a DM, or compiling a lengthy email. Pictures of the tattoo are sent. Opinions are offered. This communication is the first step of covering a tattoo effectively.

To begin any effective consult, both parties need to agree to work together because if you just don’t like each other the end result is going to be of greater consequence than a so-so finished product. We have an article that is a good starting point for clients before considering any tattoo work. Here is the link:

What To Consider Before Getting A Tattoo.

Once that is accomplished, the planning of how best to approach the coverup design can begin.

Deciding The Approach To a Cover Up Tattoo.

Before any artwork is created, both parties need to agree on what they assume the best outcome for a cover up can be achieved. To do this, they need to understand the size, density, and complexity of the tattoo being covered. The artist also needs to get a solid understanding of how possible scar tissues may interact with the future design and Identify how the stresses of the location will interact with the design and influence its legibility in the future. See our article on Body Mapping and Tattoo Design for more info.

Here is a video describing the 3 different types of “cover up” tattoos you can do.

How to Identify Complexities in Cover Up Tattoos.

Some of the more complex issues that surround a cover up tattoos are oftentimes the most overlooked. Knowing how to identify skin issues that resulted from the previous artist’s work and what types of pigments are best at covering what is already there is key to a successful coverup.

Tattooing Scar Tissues

The first thing any tattoo artist should look at before designing the tattoo is how much scar tissue can be located in the existing work. (Picture of raised skin) Most people can identify scar tissue because there is topographical changes to the skin. Since we are avoiding the discussion of tattooing surgical or self-harm scars, the topographical changes area a result of an artist overworking the area, over-saturating the tattoo, or from poor aftercare practices which result in delayed healing or infection.

A scarred tattoo that shows raised skin where the ink was put in.

When an artist can see raised/scarred skin that has to be incorporated into the cover up tattoo they need to make sure to place these areas in a space in the design that either:

  1. Stays away from the darkest points of the design.
    • Darkness indicates DEPTH in a design. The darker a space is, the further away it normally is, especially when there is multiple tones/colors apparent in the tattoo.
  2. Matches the topography of the design.
    • When a tattoo has a complex plane orientation, be sure to place the scarred areas on the HIGHEST point inside the design. This will ensure that the viewers eyes won’t have to negotiate a conflicting distance that the design says is there versus what is really there.
  3. Lack any real detail.
    • When scar tissue is tattooed there is a greater chance that pigment migration will occur sooner than you may be comfortable with. Putting detail into scar tissue will result in blurry edges, blending of colors, and lightening much quicker than “normal” skin textures.

Identifying Pigments in Cover Up Tattoos

The next step a tattoo artist should do after identifying scar tissue in the site of a cover up is to attempt to identify what types of pigments are already in the skin. The most basic approach is to identify whether the tattoo is black and grey, or color. Yeah, I know that is really very basic but we at Better Tattooing always want to start from the ground and build up.

A poorly done line work tattoo.

Black Pigments and Cover Up Tattoos.

Values of black pigments already established in the skin are going to be the biggest hurdles for a cover up tattoo. This is because the most dark parts of a tattoo require more interventions to reduce or remove/cover them. (More on this later). The other issue is that the design being placed has to accommodate the dark spaces (line work included) rather than leave them alone to be integrated into the existing work (reworks of tattoos deal with this constantly). If an artist tries to avoid the blacks and doesn’t either rework them or doesn’t redefine the margins of this color, the design will hold a lack of contrast once applied. This is because the existing pigment has already aged and settled (to varying degrees, depending on the age of the existing tattoo).

Color Pigments and Cover Up Tattoos.

For color tattoos that are being covered up, tattoo artists need to be aware of tonal values before attempting to cover or blend new work into he existing. Colors like red, blue, purple, and green react differently over time when compared to brown, orange, yellow, magenta, and white. The previously stated colors tend to be more colorfast (depending on skin tone and lifestyle) and don’t degrade as quickly with light energy interaction (being in the sun). This is especially evident when you look at oranges and brown pigments. Oranges almost universally degrade and fade away over time. Browns do the same but can change color depending on what base is utilized when mixing the color (sometimes the browns fade into blues, purples, or even greens!). Knowing this a skilled tattoo artist is able to plan ahead and understand how established pigments will mix with the residual leftovers after years have passed. Knowing your palette is key to achieving the best result!

A horrible tinker bell with an American Southern Flag as wings
Found on Reddit.

The last thing we need to think about before attempting a cover up tattoo is budget and time.

How Long Do Cover Up Tattoos Take to Do and How Much Do They Cost?

This is really going to be a per-person thing tattoo artists need to deal with. The larger a tattoo is, the more complex it is, or the darker it is, means the process is going to take longer to cover the tattoo. This also means the final cost is going to be greater.

Understanding how to approach a cover up tattoo is only step 1 in the process. We have another article that goes over the next step linked here:

Getting Started With a Cover Up Tattoo

One Last Thing.

Patience in Application – The Final Part of a Cover Up Tattoo Consultation

When confronted with multiple sessions to achieve a completed tattoo, most clients will attempt to pressure or even avoid the reality of what is possible. Instead, they choose to react to the potential costs and time commitment by getting a second opinion. This is a problem because, as I stated above, cover up tattoos are not a thing everyone is trained to do. Clients can find a smooth talking individual, a tattooer who “feels” like they can do the job, or some artist who just feels bad and wants to help a person out, to attempt the cover up. In my experience this always leads to a bigger problem and can eventually make it so the cost of repair is so great that the person suffering from a bad tattoo is unable to attempt a cover up.

Every tattoo artist needs to take the time to explain, in detail, all aspects of the cover up process to a client. The artist must collaborate with a client to ensure the end result is possible, how long it can take, and how much it will cost. This is called informed consent