Common Tattoo Questions; Cover-Up Tattoos - By Jon Poulson

Wow! I've heard it all... Today a girl in her early 20's came in and said "I heard that you can cover this (mess of a tattoo) up with white ink. How does that work, and when can we start?" I just smiled and shook my head. I had her sit down and explained to her how a cover-up works. Since I find myself explaining this to at least a dozen people a month, I decided to post it on our site so that it can benefit others.

In a perfect world, we could cover a mistake with a beautiful image and the old image would simply be gone. But it just doesn't work like that in the real world. 

I get so many people stoping by the shop asking about doing a cover-up. It seems like anyone that has more than a couple tattoos has at least that one "mistake" tattoo. It's usually one of two stories; either it's a drunken night escapade, or a search for a cheap tattoo (and usually a friend of a friend that purchased a "tattoo kit" from some shady internet site thinking tattooing could be a fun hobby. You with visions of a perfectly placed amazing piece of art at a steal of a price; Paying all of $20 bucks and a pack of smokes.) – and you wonder why the tattoo didn't turn out the way you envisioned it. 

Someone should break the hands of these "scratchers" that claim to tattoo (or at least their cheap equipment)! I know, I know, but the tattoo he did on one of your friends looks great! I hate to break it to you... NO, It looks just as bad as yours! Look at it again; and look at it as close as you look at yours. They both look terrible and you both made the mistake. The sad part is: it's a mistake that will be on your body for the rest of your life! In many states it's a FELONY to do this to someone; Tattoo outside of a State Licensed establishment without the proper tattoo licenses and training. (But not in Utah! Utah doesn't license it's tattooers for some unknown reason. So anyone can pick-up a tattoo machine and ruin someone's skin, spread disease and not even realize that they did it because they didn't have to do any training! Utah, you gotta love it! If any Tattooer claims to be a "Licensed Tattoo Artist in UTAH, they're lying! there are currently no licensing procedures for Tattooers! Ridiculous; but that's a topic for another time.) My point is, these people are spreading horrible tattoos and diseases for cheap prices, ruining people's skin, and lives with their filth. I for one have had enough of it, and I'm tired of fixing their mistakes.

Even though people joke about, and poke fun at their buddy's messed up angel that looks like it got ran over by a semi, or her ex's name on her shoulder that's missing a few lines and has ink spreading out underneath the skin, or the rose that looks like a dead cat. A bad tattoo is nothing to laugh about. wether it's an ex-lover's name, something you drew back in school, or a tattoo that just didn't turn out the way you wanted it, an un-wanted tattoo is a source of pride-sucking embarrassment. Sometimes it was the start of something amazing; something that you had planned for years but somehow it just got lost along the way.

Regardless of how, what, where, or when, now you're stuck with it and there are very few options. Actually only three viable options;

  1. You can just keep living with it; Well, we all know how that feels. But, hey, it's an option.
  2. You can get it removed with a laser; Great option! it's costly, but with some of the new laser clinics we are working with, it's quick and more affordable than you may think.
  3. Tattoo Cover-Up; That's where I come in. Before I get into this, I should point out that I get quite a few clients that opt to do a partial Laser removal and partial cover-up. This is a great option and I'll get into it further.

Each has pros and cons... Once you are sick of hiding it, only you can decide which is right for you. If laser removal is the best solution for you, we have two different clinics we work with. Both have the most up-to-date, modern methods for removal... where it takes a couple months, not years to get rid of your mistake. Both offer great pricing and both offer financing to help you.

Which brings us to your third option; Covering it up with another Tattoo.

There is a disturbing trend in the industry by less seasoned cover-up artists. Tattooers are covering up mistake tattoos with anything, and everything. Thinking it's covered since you can't see it when they are finished that day. You see, when a new tattoo is put into place, the old tattoo pigment hasn't mixed in with the new pigment yet. That and the redness from the irritated skin caused by applying the new tattoo completely hides the old tattoo no matter how light the colors are.  The instant result is a "WOW!!! THE OLD TATTOO IS GONE!" the thank-you follows. What you, and probably this artist, doesn't realize is Yes, it looks great right now. But give it 1-6 months and that old tattoo will show right through it all. And now you have a really big mess on your hands! Covering up a cover-up that's covering a cover-up is a major undertaking! And the worst part is, you thought it had been taken care of the first time! Only to be horrified when the old pigment mixed with the new pigment and left what looks like two images combined on your skin in the worst possible way.

When it comes to covering a tattoo in this day and age, there is a common misconception that a tattoo can be covered up by anything. And lack of proper training in many new tattooers just proliferates this misconception. And I wish that was true; But it's just not the case. The fact is: All Tattoo Pigment (ink) is Transparent. Which means it's see-through. The ink remains wet in the dermis layer of skin indefinitely. So, any pigment that is put over/into older pigment mixes together in the skin eventually. Just like mixing paint, the darker pigment takes over the lighter. So, if the tattoo is black, or has black, the only thing that can cover it is black. If the color of the tattoo is Yellow and we put blue over/into it, it mixes in the skin and makes a green color. Get the idea? The only thing you can cover a black tattoo is black pigment, or hide it in Black shading.

There are some tricks we use at Aloha Salt Lake Tattoos so that we don't have to use Solid Black to cover a mistake that was originally done in black pigment. The first trick is to go at least 2-3x as large as the mistake tattoo we are covering and trick the eye to look somewhere other than the location of the old tattoo. Now, we still have to use Black pigment to cover a black mistake, but we can hide it in shading or detailed lines with shading. We then divert the eye to a different area where we add details and something pleasing to look at. So, the old tattoo is still there, hidden in shading. So you end up looking at the new image and don't focus on the area where the shadow is hiding the old tattoo. This gets especially tricky with lettering and thicker lines. Lines and shading that go in one direction are generally easier to "hide" than lines that go in a bunch of different directions. Same with Thick lines; A thick black line is another tricky thing to "hide". But with planning, it can be done effectively.

The problem with a cover-up is you can never get exactly what you want. There is always going to be some degree of settling to make it work. Many people think they found the perfect image to cover their mistake tattoo. Then I explain to them the transparent pigment and how it works. Shattering their dream of a simple cover-up that's the same size as the original mistake tattoo. But, after I explain the in's and out's of how a cover-up works, it's a lot easier for them to find an image that they like that will also do the trick of covering up the mistake.

Basically, if you're wondering if a cover-up image you found will work, Instead of thinking of the new image on top of the old mistake, think of the old tattoo on top of the new image. Because that is what's going to happen. In less than 6 months, that old tattoo will show through on top of the new tattoo. And, if done correctly, you won't be able to tell that there was anything there. Now, YOU may be able to see a small piece of the old tattoo because you know exactly where to look. But nobody else will ever be the wiser. And is't that the point?

When planning a cover-up we have to take all of this into consideration. Each color, each line and shade. It's never a quick... Let's just do this to cover that (unless it's a black shape covering the old tattoo; which some people opt for as a quick fix. But that never looks good in the long-run).

Finally, depending on the image you want, the size of the Mistake Tattoo, and your budget, a partial laser removal partial cover-up may be the way to go. If done correctly, you can get stunning results for a lot less than you think.

There are a few ways to go about this. But each one has it's advantages. Sometimes it's a simple; fade the entire existing tattoo to the point that lighter colors will cover the remaining pigment. This makes things much simpler to get a new image exactly the way you want it. Other times it's removing smaller (or sometimes larger) areas completely so that we can use that space for light areas of the new tattoo. Then leaving other parts that will be covered by dark pigment. This is another way to make a cover-up look exactly the way you want while compromising very little. With the new modern lasers it's less painful and a lot quicker than ever before. We have two tattoo removal partners that our clients work with to accomplish one of these two results. Resulting in an amazing cover-up.

Don't fall victim to anyone telling you that a cover-up is easy! It's not exactly easy. It's always a challenge. And while it's nice to be able to give someone exactly what they want, it rarely works that way with a cover-up. So, take your time, find an artist that will work with you to understand what you are trying to accomplish.

Which-ever way you decide to go, Do it right! Don't make another mistake and end-up with an even bigger mess than you started with. It's going to take time and patience. But in the end, you'll actually have something that you are proud to show.

If you have any questions about covering a tattoo that you don't like, give me a call or send an email. I'm more than happy to answer your questions. We can schedule a free consultation to discuss the specifics of your situation if you like. I'm more than happy to make recommendations based on your expected results. If it turns out that a cover-up is the best solution, We'll figure it out together and give you something that you'll be happy to show off. If Laser Removal is the best solution for you, I have two different clinics that use the most modern methods for removal... it now takes a 1-3 month, not years, to get rid of your mistake. Even quicker to do a partial removal to get that cover-up started. Either way you decide, we are here to help you find a solution that will work best for you.


Jon Poulson
Aloha Salt Lake Tattoos
Murray, Utah

Jon Poulson

Owner, Artist Aloha Salt Lake Tattoos in Murray, Utah. Clean, Professional Tattoos by top artists.