As a tattoo artist, you always want to aim to provide your clients with high-quality art that they will be happy with for many years to come. But sometimes artists make mistakes. Sometimes clients trust untrained or inexperienced artists with a job that is beyond their skillset. Sometimes people change their minds about a tattoo for personal reasons, or their tattoo fades significantly over time. And sometimes people just get bad tattoos. Does that mean they have to be stuck with them forever, or pay a lot of money to have them removed? Not necessarily.
Cover-up tattoos are an alternative for those who aren’t happy with their body art but who don’t want to have it removed. While the same general tools, principles, and processes are used for cover-up tattoos as for standard ones, cover-up tattoo artists need some specialized skills, strategy, and experience in order to turn a regrettable design into a high-quality piece of body art.
What Is a Cover-Up Tattoo?
A cover-up tattoo is one that is specially designed to mask a previously existing piece of body art. How that is done depends on the client’s goals for the cover-up, as well as the shape, size, color, and specific design of the tattoo to be covered up. If they’re looking to refresh an aging design or one that has faded due to UV exposure or other external factors, it’s possible the “cover-up” will be more like a “freshen up.” But for designs that they want to disappear, the process is a bit more complicated.
Key Considerations for Cover-Up Tattoos
When a client wants to completely cover up a tattoo with another tattoo, artists must assess whether any components of the existing design could be incorporated into a cover-up design. In some cases it’s possible to use shapes, lines, or colors from the previous tattoo, blending the two designs together to create something new and natural. In some cases, however, there’s nothing salvageable from the previous design, and the artist will need to use color to completely mask the existing design.
Another crucial factor to keep in mind when thinking about cover-up tattoos is size. In almost every case, a cover-up tattoo will need to be significantly larger than the original design—sometimes up to twice as large—in order to cover it fully and naturally. But the most critical consideration when it comes to cover-up tattoos is color since the possibilities for a cover-up are largely determined by the specific colors and the density of color used in the original design.
Color in Cover-Up Tattoos
When you inject new ink into skin that’s already been tattooed, the new ink doesn’t just sit on top of the old ink and cover it up—the two colors blend together, creating something in the middle. Even if the original tattoo design is many years old, the colors will blend. That means cover-up tattoos generally have to be composed of fairly dark colors (black, brown, blue, purple, magenta, or dark green) to be successful. If the original design is composed primarily of light colors, a cover-up design may be able to stay relatively lightly colored by blending in darker shades of the original colors. But if it consists of any dark, densely colored areas and lines, a cover-up will require a lot of layering, blending, highlighting, and color depth in order to successfully mask the original.
In some cases, it may be best to advise a potential client to get some laser tattoo removal in order to lighten the original design, broadening the possibilities for their cover-up. Before trying to perform cover-up work for yourself, it’s important to observe and learn from a skilled cover-up artist. Without the proper color theory and technique, it’s entirely possible to make a client’s bad tattoo even worse by leaving the original design too visible or by filling the cover-up too densely.
How to Expertly Cover Up a Bad Tattoo
Learning how to cover up an old tattoo with a new one completely and creatively takes time and effort. As with any other aspect of tattooing, doing it well requires hands-on practice and experience, as well as coaching by artists who’ve done it before. It’s critical to keep in mind that every tattoo and every cover-up are different and will require a slightly different approach. Below we provide a short, step-by-step walkthrough of the basic steps of the cover-up process in order to give you an idea of what to be thinking about at each point.
Step 1: Discuss the project with the client
Start by having a detailed conversation with the client about the tattoo they’d like to cover up, and what they’d like to cover it with. As described above, some clients actually want to alter, embellish, or intensify an existing design rather than cover it up completely. Some clients envision a cover-up that would be difficult or impossible based on the original tattoo. This conversation is the first step in helping the client set realistic expectations for what a cover-up could be and look like—which is especially important given that some clients have strong emotions around tattoos they’re trying to get rid of. It’s also an opportunity to discuss the process, including costs, number of sessions, scheduling, and anything else the client may need to know before agreeing to work with you.
Step 2: Trace the old tattoo
Cover-up tattooing is more complicated than standard tattooing in that you’re not working with a blank canvas. You’ll probably need a good chunk of time to experiment with the existing design and come up with creative ways to achieve the intended result. To do that, you’ll need a copy of it. Using stencil paper, trace the existing tattoo. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should capture all the major features and structural elements you’ll need to deal with. You should also take photographs of the tattoo for reference.
Step 3: Brainstorm creative cover-up designs
With an outline of the existing tattoo, you can start experimenting at the light table with possible designs that accommodate the shape, size, and specific elements of the old tattoo. During this process, think about what elements could be repurposed and what elements need to be covered completely. Consider how the colors and composition of the original will affect the possibilities of the cover-up, keeping in mind that the composition and details of your new design should help draw attention away from the original. Use the client’s hopes for the final product and reference photos from the internet to generate creative ideas and solutions.
Step 4: Present your design to the client
Once you think you’ve hit a winning design, it’s time to present it to the client. Be prepared to explain all of your decisions and thinking about the design, including sizing, shape, and color. At this point, you’ll also have a better idea of how many sessions the job could take. Once you have the client’s approval, you’re ready to start covering up.
Step 5: Transfer the design
Carefully set your new design over the existing one, making sure that the angle and placement correspond to the cover-up plan you made on paper. Sometimes things don’t align or sit exactly as you expected based on the two-dimensional design. In that case, be prepared to make slight tweaks and adjustments.
Step 6: Start with the darkest areas
When covering up a tattoo, it’s best to start with the darkest areas first. Often, these are the areas of greatest overlap with the original tattoo, so the density of color required to successfully obscure the original in these areas will help set the baseline for color gradients and highlights in the rest of the design. Additionally, if the cover-up will require multiple sessions, it allows the ink in these areas the most time to settle—sometimes a fill that looked solid at first will reveal a bit of the original after healing.
Step 7: Add details
Adding greater detail and highlights to a cover-up helps draw attention away from the underlying original. In addition to the details you planned on, be sure to check your progress as you go and judge whether any additional details embellishments might help make the cover-up more successful overall.
Step 8: Schedule a touch-up
In the majority of cases, you’ll want to schedule a touch-up with cover-up clients after their new tattoo has had time to fully heal. In the healing process, colors settle and fade slightly, potentially revealing elements of the original that you intended to conceal. A touch-up helps ensure that the final product looks exactly as you and the client intended for years to come.
With creativity, patience, and practice you’ll be designing eye-catching cover-ups that change how your clients feel about their tattoos completely. But you’ll also need supplies! To find the most trusted tattoo brands at some of the best prices you can find online, be sure to shop with PainfulPleasures for tattoo ink, tattoo needles, tattoo machines, and all of your other tattoo supply needs.