As a self-proclaimed tattoo commentator and writer, I rely on my personal experience and time working in a tattoo studio.
If you have a few tattoos, there's a good chance you have one or two you don't like. Whether it was a backyard scratcher offering cheap tattoos, an impulse purchase to declare a love (who now has a new girlfriend), or it's just plain ugly, bad tattoos happen.
We all have regrets and should-have-could-have moments. Considering that tattoos are forever, a bad tattoo will remind you, every time you change your clothes, of the tragedy on your skin.
You probably thought a tattoo was a one-time opportunity, and technically that is the case. Luckily, there are truly talented artists currently working within the industry worldwide who know how to cover up an old tattoo well.
No matter why you've changed your mind about the design—you've grown up a decade or two, or possibly the once-love of your life, Candy or Gavin, has now evolved into a psychopathic stalker whom you stay very, very far away from—having a horrible tattoo sucks.
Wanting to get rid of or disguise a second-rate tattoo is not unusual. There are even artists and studios that specialise in cover-up work.
There are limitations on covering up an old tattoo, but there are also many success stories of people who now love their skin. If you're thinking of getting a cover-up done, read on!
How to Cover a Tattoo With Another Tattoo
When your tattoo was first done, the ink was deposited approximately one millimetre beneath the skin into the dermis, which is the layer below the epidermis (the skin you see).
As your cover-up gets tattooed, the new ink is also deposited within the dermis, along with the old coloured ink. The pigment in the new inks does not go over the top of the old tattoo's pigment; rather the two colours combine to make a new colour, although the stronger or darker-coloured ink becomes dominant in the mixture. For example, red and blue ink mixed together make purple, underneath the skin or elsewhere.
Black is the most effective colour to cover up an old tattoo. Of course, a black-ink tattoo might not be your first choice, so you have to decide which is worse: all-black ink or an old, horrible tattoo. (But there are other colour options... see below.)
When an artist is designing a cover-up, they consider the colour in the old tattoo and how it will mix with the new ink's colour. Talented artists work out a strategy for placing the new design and colours over the old one.
Cover-Up Tattoo Colours
- Traditionally, black was the main colour used in tattoo cover-ups.
- Artists can now also use browns, oranges, greens, blues, and magentas when doing a cover-up.
- New coloured inks, when merged with the old ink underneath the skin, can create a whole new colour.
- Darker versions of the same colour can cover up lighter colours.
Using Colours of Ink in Tattoo Cover-Ups
Traditionally, black was the main colour used in tattoo cover-ups. But, as the tattoo community becomes more skilled, artists are using more colours and clever placement to hide old, unwanted tattoos.
Tattoo cover-ups can also use:
Some other colours that if used correctly can also be used to cover up old tattoos:
- dark magenta
Other, lighter colours can be used in a tattoo cover-up. They are used when the colour being hidden is also light, and in parts of the tattoo design that do not cover up the old tattoo.
A good rule of thumb: A darker shade of a colour can cover itself. So lime green can be covered with emerald green, and light blue with royal blue or purple.
What Can Be Done in a Cover-Up?
When your artist is creating a cover-up design, they will:
- Place tracing paper over your old tattoo and trace the outline and major features of your design. This gives them a reference for the areas of the tattoo that need a heavier cover-up design.
- Put the outline on a light table and place another piece of thin tracing paper over the top.
- Begin designing your cover-up, working around the faint outline of your old tattoo, to camouflage the areas that need it.
A talented artist will incorporate the old design rather than obliterate it: for example, developing scripting into flowing stalks or vines. By creating contrast and interesting design flourishes around the darker areas, the artist draws the eye away from the parts of the old tattoo being covered up.
Often tattoos that are designed as cover-ups are around thirty percent larger than the one they cover. This way, the darker areas of the design can camouflage the old tattoo, and lighter colours can be used on virgin skin, deceiving the eye into believing the cover-up is the only tattoo that has ever been there.
Designs and Tricks Used in Tattoo Cover-Ups
- Incorporating the old design into the new tattoo.
- Re-working an old tattoo, strengthening weak lines, or adding in features like blush on cheeks, or the illusion of hair.
- Correcting the spelling in an old tattoo.
- Creating white-based or white-backed tattoos by taking a few preliminary sessions to put white ink over the old ink. Each session lightens the old tattoo by about 10%. Repeated sessions can raise this percentage to 30%, although scarring from over-working the skin would be a valid concern.
- Fading the old tattoo through laser removal can aid in an effective cover-up.
Can I Just Change the Colour of My Tattoo?
Sometimes, a person loves their design but hates the colours. Changing just the colours can be done by using darker inks—although there is a risk this may make the old tattoo look even worse.
When changing the colours, your tattoo artist must consider the merging of the pigments in the ink. Not all colours can be changed into another colour. Of course, light colours can be darkened, for example:
- a lavender can be changed into a purple,
- pink to magenta,
- blue to purple,
- red to brown,
- and yellow to green.
NOTE: A tattoo in the process of healing will slightly change colours. Do not panic just yet if your tattoo is still quite new; give it some time to settle down.
Examples of Cover-Up Tattoos
However you came into ownership of your new tattoo, please complete the poll below.
In the end, some of those crappy, faded tattoos we all sport are the stories of our lives. Considering our lives are full of ups and downs, maybe our tattoos should be too.
Just take your time to find that awesome tattoo artist that's just right for you. Don't scrimp on the dollars for the tattoo artist and the after-care procedures you follow.
Hope it all goes well.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Anne
Roy Vandal on September 20, 2019:
I have bad tattooing all over my body and i need it to become art ive lived with this shit for over 12 years god help me find a tattoo artist that can help me.
Henry joute on August 23, 2018:
How much will it cost me one right full hand?
Lau chi han on August 23, 2018:
Can u design for me to cover up my old tattoo at back side
Funnygaming on December 30, 2017:
My tattoo ink look faded (in it 4 month later), mostly the black look like a light gray and was suppose to have many different colors but it end up looking the same mudy blue everywhere no green or purple for my butterfly and my lettering was suppose to have a violet pinkish color with a very fine line and he decide to put a grayish lilac and shading at random place .. ;/
pandabrian on December 10, 2017:
i have a stupid mistake on the back of my head in the form of an ignorant racial emblem... my children and the shame on there faces when your at your daughters 2nd grade parent conferences...
prasamma on September 23, 2017:
i want to cover my old tatoo.. please help me
Sailesh Adhikari on September 13, 2017:
I want to cover my old tattoo.
Can you help me....
Theresa M. Gargano on August 02, 2017:
Thank you for providing valuable information regarding the lightening, cover-up, or removal of an undesirable tattoo.
terry jones on June 13, 2017:
looks good your cover up
GRAMMARPIG :D on June 01, 2017:
Good article on cover ups. I have an issue with misplaced apostrophes though. When I read something that has them added incorrectly, it diverts my attention off of the message and on to the grammar mistakes!
PLEA'SE U'SE APOSTROPHE'S RE'SPONSIBLY. :)
Sarah on September 21, 2016:
I looked up to find a way to fix some crap job wings the artist left with with after they took my car as a payment, refused to give it back then totaled it.
E.P. on January 02, 2016:
I had a tattoo done on my 18th birthday. I knew what I wanted and somehow got bullied into a design the artist (and my mother's ex) told me "would be just fine." Being naive and stupid, I went with it and hated it. I then went to another artist who did a horrible job in trying to cover it and I ended up with a monstrosity of black ink on my upper back. Is it possible to cover faded black ink with colored ink? I have been trying to fade the ink over the past seven years.
calculus-geometry on March 26, 2015:
Wow, those are really incredible before and after pictures. The drawback is that you have to get a lot more ink, it seems.
Anne (author) from Hobart, Tasmania ~ Australia.(The little bit broken off the bottom of AUS) on November 12, 2013:
Thanks for your links missl0ng123 - understand about wanting to have one covered up! hope he gets it soon, it just makes things....better in the mirror! ;)
Michele Kelsey from Edmond, Oklahoma on November 11, 2013:
Good hub. I am wanting my man to cover up a tattoo, so this is great information. Shared the link to my Facebook friends. Well covered topic.
Anne (author) from Hobart, Tasmania ~ Australia.(The little bit broken off the bottom of AUS) on November 09, 2013:
Thanks heaps Manicpanicplease! Really love those photo's shows how awesome a tattoo can look these days!
L Brander from Canada on November 08, 2013:
Cool hub, I loved the photos you used. Voted up, interesting & useful.
Anne (author) from Hobart, Tasmania ~ Australia.(The little bit broken off the bottom of AUS) on November 03, 2013:
Thanks for your feedback. And yeah, me too with the cover-up tattoo!
lesliebyars on November 03, 2013:
Nice hub. I've had one of my tats covered up with another. Very useful article my friend . Voted up, interesting and useful.