Tattoo cover ups are their own art form

The best cover-ups incorporate the old underlying tattoo for a new design that is indistinguishable. Working an ex’s name into the antlers of an elk or changing a hate symbol into a geometric pattern may sound simple, but it’s rarely easy. Traditional cover ups require the new tattoo to be larger, often 2–3 times larger, than the old one. The new colors must also be darker to overshadow the old ink. In the case of covering a black tattoo, even a layer of new black on top of the old can often fail to totally hide the old art. A careful look — or sometimes even a casual glance — can usually pick out the old tattoo once the new one has fully healed.

When you first come home with a new tattoo, the ink will be bright and sharply defined. The tattoo will look its best after a few days, once the redness has time to fade but the ink is still fresh. It doesn’t take long after that for the color to start to fade a little, and the sharp line work may get a little fuzzy. There are a number of processes at work here.

The first thing that happens is losing the topmost ink

Tattooing machines place ink in both the dermis and the epidermis skin layers. Ink in the dermis will be trapped by scar tissue, which is what makes tattoos permanent. But ink in the top layer, the epidermis, will be lost as those skin cells are constantly migrating towards the surface and lost. It doesn’t happen right before your eyes, but as the months go by, all tattoos will fade a little due to the natural behavior of the epidermis.

There’s even more going on under the surface.

After a few years go by, some amount of the ink has probably migrated to elsewhere in the body. Old ink often settles in the lymph nodes, where it can only be seen with body scans like MRI machines. Some inks naturally oxidize or decay, which can cause them to change colors.

Some tattoos will undergo a process called blowout. This happens when the ink is placed too deeply in the skin. If it gets into the layer of fat cells below the dermis, the ink will spread out and appear cloudy or blurry. Tattoos placed where the skin is very thin, such as the hands and fingers, are especially vulnerable to blowout, but it can happen on any part of the body.

Covering old tattoos must account for each of these natural skin processes.

The new tattoo must not go too deep, or it will cause blowout. The new ink will undergo the same fading and microscopic migration as the old ink. What results is that most cover-ups look great on day one, but over time, the ink settles in such a way that the old tattoo will show through.

Traditional cover-ups must also take into account that whichever ink is darker will be the one that is visible. Much like coloring on paper with crayons, you can’t cover black or purple with white or yellow. Both pigments will coexist in the same layer of skin, and the darker one will overpower the lighter one. Some artists attempt to overpower the old ink with multiple layers packed with light ink, but even this technique will usually fade over time and allow the old art to be visible.

So what do you do if you want to place a new tattoo on top of an old one?

A good cover-up artist will often be able to create a new design that works with the old one so that an untrained eye won’t notice the old tattoo. But the best cover-up artists will recognize when something can’t be covered. If your artist told you “I can give you an 8-ball, a black panther, or a solid black geometric shape,” it may be time to consider removal before revision.

Tatt2Away can work with an artist’s new design and remove the trouble spots that would show through. Often just one or two sessions are all that’s needed to clear out enough ink to give the artist freedom to place any new tattoo design they want.

How Tattoos Can Bleed Through Cover-ups was originally published in Tatt2Away on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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