Updated: Mar 27
The Thrill is Gone. Getting rid of the mistake.
We often make impulsive decisions when it comes to getting tattooed, even though they aren’t going away once the impulse moment is gone. The stained skin serves as a reminder as well as a badge of honor to anyone who wears it. It can be a wonderful experience lasting years, invoking self-esteem and newfound beauty, the ultimate form of self-expression. The talk of the party and the envy of everyone in the room.
However, a poorly done tattoo or one we regret can have the exact opposite effect. You may have had the best intentions with that tribal on your lower back but somehow it lost its appeal. The constant reminder on your skin of that night at the county fair is enough to make the infinity symbol on your wrist crawl. You’ve had enough of the comments from friends, and you’re sick of hiding it under your mesh tube top at family reunions. So, what do you do once the damage has been done?
You’ve got three options in this situation. One, to just live with it and move on. Two; you can go get the very expensive and painful procedure known as “Laser Removal”, or three; you can get it covered up with another tattoo.
Live with it.
The first option is self-explanatory. You shrug off the bad experience or botched tattoo and move on let it go. Sometimes it’s just better to cut ties and accept it for what it is. No harm in that. And if this is you then more power to you. After being in the business for 15 years I've seen plenty of people turn down the option to cover it and tell me they’d rather leave it. A sort of attachment to the memory holds it dear to them. And that’s awesome because this is all about Wearing Your Story, not someone else’s.
The second and most expensive/painful route is Laser Removal. This is a fairly old remedy for this problem but recent advancements in tech have brought it up to speed. When you are sick of the tattoo but don’t want another piece over it, this Is a great alternative for you. The cost is outweighed by the result for most and is much less invasive than in previous years; a great option for looking for the least amount of pain.
That being said, I've also seen many clients come in after having this procedure done and the tattoo they wanted to be covered is not only still there, but the skin is scarred and raised from the laser treatment. Now, this doesn’t happen to everyone, but more often than not, it will not “disappear” with one single session. Meaning you could be going back to the laser office multiple times spending thousands to achieve what you hope will be a clean slate.
Cover It Up.
Last but definitely not least there is my favorite option, Covering it up. Lay right over the eyesore with a completely new design entirely. This is by far the most difficult yet rewarding part of tattooing and isn’t to be taken lightly. Honing your craft and becoming great at fixing and covering mistakes can put any artist on the next level. Not many tattooers will even consider doing them, so this opens a world of opportunities others turn down.
Every case is different, but the method remains the same. Getting hung up on the shape or the size of the piece being covered will lead you to make decisions you wouldn’t normally make in a non-coverup situation. Your focus should stay on the piece you are doing; not the tattoo you are covering. Now, of course, it is always key to have the right placement and size to make sure that the old tattoo is completely gone, but don’t limit yourself to what is already there.
I tend to work in a more realistic style, but whatever style you choose to go with, the key to everything is SATURATION. The line work needs to be incredibly smooth and bold if you are running lines. The weights and cuts need to be immaculate since this will be the foundation of the tattoo and one of the first major steps in making a great coverup. Bold holds. Don’t be afraid to pull some thick dick rails over top of those old crusty ones. The more drastic the difference, the easier it will be in the end to cover. And remember line Weights matter. Make sure there are different thicknesses of your linework. The further forward something is in-depth, the thicker the line should be. Things further away or set deeper in the tattoo should have smaller lines, if any at all.
If not, use lines and go toward a more realistic approach, you’ll want to start at one edge and start building. Sculpting the structure of the piece slowly making sure to evenly saturate as you go. And creating edges from Treat it as if there is nothing underneath and you can retain the focus you’ll need to get through its entirety. Remember the goal is to saturate, saturate, saturate. Taking your time and staying patient and diligent in small areas and steadily moving forward is the only way to make this happen. Trust your process.
Slow and Steady.
Take your time! Most cover-ups take multiple sessions and many hours. Do not be fooled by Instagram posts that seem to be able to achieve the impossible in one small session. Believe me, it’s just that; Impossible. After 15 years of working with some of the most awful coverups, I know from experience that great things take time to create, no matter what they are. Rushing through and trying to be quick will inevitably lead you to a bad result and sometimes another coverup. Spend time working a reworking the stencil until it fits perfectly; not just fits. Sometimes well thought curves and dark spots will take care of half the battle for you, so let the old tattoo guide not limit you.
Look at your color palette objectively and with purpose. Take extra thought in blending deep tones and shades, not just blacking out entire sections. There are ways to make a deep purple and Blue intensify your black and cover even better. Understanding that a banana yellow will not cover a thick black tribal line but surrounding that yellow with oranges or tans or complimentary colors will. Light colors cannot stand alone. You will 100% have the old tattoo bleed through even before you are finished. Layer colors on top of one another, and join colors completely, leaving no space. This is once again reiterating that saturation is king.
Sessions and layers.
Rule of thumb: Two passes will always be better than one. That first pass of baby blue may not have done the trick, but the second or third will; And not in just one session either. You don’t want to overwork a piece simply because the tattoo underneath is still visible. This is the main reason why patience is so crucial. Having a tattoo you want to cover up is one thing; leaving a life-long scar over it because you rushed and didn’t trust the process is another.
Planning out multiple sittings and letting the piece heal in between can produce amazing results. The layering of your colors on top and next to one another brings a whole new level of depth. And this works for every tattoo, not just coverups. The key is to work in slow steady circular motions building off the last pass until there are no visible needle marks. Steadily packing color instead of quickly shading will make it much easier to cover the old piece. Remember you must slow down to go faster.
Compromises and Expectations.
During the very first meeting with the client, it’s important to be very blunt about what can and cannot cover their existing tattoo. You may not be the first person they’ve spoken to about covering it so be ready to answer questions frankly and honestly. The client will have to give the artist some creative freedom in order to do a proper job covering that travesty of a tattoo. If they want what they want and there’s no wiggle room; politely tell the client you aren’t going to be able to work with them and give 2-3 referrals to reputable shops close by that may be able to help them out better. Make sure they are good references because your name will travel with that client, and both the other artist and the client will remember this kind gesture.
Firing a problematic client that won’t budge on their idea or give any creative freedom to the artist will free your calendar up for the great clients that will. In the end, your name and reputation is on the line. Allowing a client to have 100% creative control will inevitably lead to a poor tattoo. I always say, “If the client isn’t careful, I actually might do the tattoo they wanted”. A lighthearted way of saying that the client isn’t always right. What sounds good in theory or looks good on paper or on Pinterest may not translate well to the skin. They must be willing to compromise, or you have to move past them and open your books for people who will.
There is no point in “attempting to cover something”. No reason to “try” anything just to appease a difficult person. Be stern but open and remember to always push the fact that you want the best result and you are only trying to guide them in the right direction. If they are a good client and you’ve earned their trust; they will let you do something that will not only cover it properly but look amazing as well.
As I said earlier, you are likely not the first shop they have been to and you are not a commodity. Do not cut your price to match the competition. This is not Walmart. Stand firm on whatever you feel is fair for the time and effort put into the piece. The larger the coverup, the more you need to compensate for how long it will take and how hard it will be. I used to shy away from saying the actual price for fear of the client recoiling in terror and shunning me away…Newsflash: It doesn’t happen. If they don’t like the price or cannot afford it that has no bearing on you and your charging methods. It means they will have to either save up or find another artist to do it cheaper. Rolex doesn’t make a low-priced option to appease everyone who can’t afford their standard. And their customers understand that.
If you are skilled at what you do and do things with the highest quality you possibly can, there is no limit to what you can charge for your services. Clients will wait months if not years to schedule with you, and they will pay whatever the price to have that old regret covered with a new infatuation. Do not take on every project, be selective in choosing what to give your time to. Always remember in order to charge a premium rate The demand must be greater than the supply, and the work must speak for itself.
If you stand behind your work and care about the client, you’ll guarantee your tattoos for life. Charging a premium rate comes with an inherent price; people expect to get what they pay for. And what better way to secure a lifelong client and advertisement than to touch up the tattoo for life, ideally for free, to reiterate that you care more about making sure the client is happy than making a quick buck? The money charged for the tattoo itself should well take care of any maintenance over the years because you didn’t skimp on detail or cut corners when you initially did it. You are saturated and layered over multiple passes and sessions. The upkeep of a cover-up will be minor if you implement the steps above and do it right the first time.
Always keep in mind that this may be just another tattoo for you, but to that person it is everything. I should clarify that ALL tattoos matter, but coverups are a whole other ballgame. Some have walked around for years with long sleeves to hide an embarrassing mistake. Some have been ridiculed and laughed at because of them, ashamed because of something they can’t control anymore. Seeing the look on someone’s face when you enthusiastically explain how you’re going to get rid of it, and that Yes, it is possible, and no it doesn’t need to be blacked out. This Is the complete opposite reaction they were given at the last 3 shops they went to and had basically given up. You can make all the difference in the world to them by applying these tried-and-true methods. Helping that person Wear the story THEY want to tell, and not be stuck with the skin they are in is incredibly humbling and empowering. Remember to not get overwhelmed, and always take time to approach each individual methodically.