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Getting a Tattoo Cover-Up

Saturday, February 21st 2015. | Tattoo basics

One of the most awesome things about getting a tattoo is that it’s there for life, all the way to the grave. However, if you’ve made a poor decision about what design to permanently apply to your body, this can also be the worst thing about getting one.

It happens for a variety of reasons. You thought it was a good idea to get an ex or a best friend’s name tattooed on you. You were sixteen when you got your first tattoo and put absolutely no forethought into what design you wanted to get. Or, perhaps you simply just aren’t the same person you were ten or fifteen years ago, and the tattoo you have no longer represents you, or is something you don’t like anymore. Forever is a very long time, and sometimes people end up regretting their permanent choice. In fact, one in six people in the United States who have gotten tattooed (which is a whopping 25% of the population) regret getting at least one tattoo.

So, what can be done?

There are two ways to get an undesired tattoo removed. The first is laser tattoo removal, which essentially involves a laser beaming its way under your skin and breaking apart the tattoo pigments so that your body can absorb them naturally, thus fading the tattoo and, with a little luck and a few sessions, completely removing it. The process is expensive, and the three weeks of healing time is quite painful, but it’s the only way to completely remove a tattoo from the skin.

The other way is to get the tattoo covered with a new, more desirable design in the same location. This is known as a “cover-up” tattoo.

What is Involved in a Cover-Up Tattoo?

As the name implies, a cover-up tattoo is a new tattoo design that is placed over an existing design to completely mask it, often using parts of the old design to help make the effect more accurate. Almost always, unless you simply want to fix an existing tattoo and redo it, a cover-up tattoo will be larger and darker than the existing design. It must be large enough to successfully cloak the old tattoo, dark enough to hide it well without being too obvious, and the design must be well-thought out by the tattoo artist and the canvas so that the maximum effect can be achieved.

Cover-up tattoos are often desired because they cost far less than laser tattoo removal (about the same price, if not just a bit more expensive, than it would be to get a new tattoo on fresh skin), and they’re not as painful. Plus, it’s like watching the tattoo artist perform a little magic as you watch them transform an old, undesired tattoo into a new masterpiece! However, there are a few limitations with this method of getting rid of tattoos, and not every tattoo is a good candidate to be covered.

What Kind of Limitations Are There?

As previously mentioned, cover-up tattoos are almost always larger than the original tattoo so that all of it can be covered without looking conspicuous. This means that the tattoo must have ample space around it for addition. A tattoo then, for example, that is surrounded by other tattoos with little room in between will make for a very difficult cover-up! Furthermore, tattoos that are very large in size are often harder to cover because there just isn’t as much space on the body to accommodate a larger piece. The artist will need space to work the old tattoo into the new one, otherwise it will be obvious in most cases (unless the tattoo is very light) that there is an existing one beneath it.

This brings us to our second point of contention: the darkness of the original tattoo. Naturally, the lighter a tattoo is, the easier it will be to cover, and the more freedom there is to design the new tattoo! Tattoos which haven’t been done by professionals are usually (though not always) great candidates for cover-ups because they haven’t been applied properly, and often fade much faster than a professional tattoo. Tattoos which have aged significantly are also lighter and easier to cover, as are small tattoos (your ex’s name, for the record, should be very easy to cover if it’s not bigger than your hand!). Tattoos that are larger and darker can still be covered, but there is less freedom with the design in this case.

Finally, some tattoos aren’t good candidates for cover-ups simply because the person wearing the design isn’t willing to be flexible with his/her options. Cover-up tattoos must be done in a specific way. They often are in color, as color tattoos require more saturation of ink on the skin, whereas greyscale tattoos use the skin as part of the design. They are often more detailed because larger amounts of black outlines leave more opportunity for dynamic shading, and the lines themselves will draw away from the original design even before the shading has been added.

And finally, they have to be dark—and not just the spot where the old tattoo is. If just one spot on your new tattoo is very dark, it will be obvious that the tattoo is a cover-up. Instead, dark contrast is added throughout the whole piece to disguise this. It’s also important to add that lighter colors have very little ability to cover colors darker than they are, which means that cover-up tattoos often use dark colors such as greens, blues, and purples in the design. In a word, no, you will not be able to cover your large tribal design on your lower back with pink cherry blossoms. We’re going to have to get more creative than that! Most importantly, you must be willing to let your tattoo artist be creative and strategic with the design of your cover-up, even if it’s not exactly what you pictured, because it needs to successfully cover the old design in order to be a good cover-up tattoo.

Consult Your Artist

So, do you think that your unsightly tattoo might be a good candidate for a cover-up? Ask your tattoo artist about it! They’ll need to see you for a consultation to see exactly what they’re dealing with so that they can make sure your idea for your new tattoo is doable. Also keep in mind that not all artists will take on the challenging task of doing a cover-up tattoo, so always make sure to find out if they have experience with this! If so, cover-up tattoos can be a great way to reclaim your skin without spending a fortune, and while still being able to wear a beautiful piece of art.


This cover-up tattoo, done by the author (, shows an unsightly exes name covered with a realistic leopard


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