Our new columnist, tattoo artist Jo Atwood, specialises in portraits, pin-ups and pretty things. Based in San Diego, she’s also worked for years in Edmonton, Alberta and in New York City, where we first became friends over 20 years ago! One of my favorite tattoos in her portfolio from way back then was a cover up. Someone came to her with a map of Italy tattooed on their arm — backwards! They probably looked at it in the mirror and thought, Hey, all right, that looks good!
Jo managed to redraw the map over the old tattoo, right way round, and work lines of the old tattoo into the provinces of Italy, with some artistic license. She managed to give new life to someone’s disappointing tattoo and turn it into a beautiful image of Italy that was surely better than the wearer could have imagined!
Thanks to improved laser removal options and more skilled tattoo artists available wherever you live, cover up tattoos have come a long way in the past couple of decades. Whether it’s a bad tattoo or a bad breakup you want to forget about, there’s no need to be stuck wearing ink that you don’t love.
In this first edition of Ask Jo Atwood, Jo answers the question, What do I need to know before I get a cover up tattoo?
What kinds of tattoos work best for cover ups?
Ideally a tattoo that’s older or faded with very little black or very faded black. The smaller it is, the easier it is. The most ideal is something tiny and faded, but it’s usually larger pieces that either, their time has come and gone or the client was never happy about it in the first place.
The other important thing to consider is what they want to cover it with. I can’t cover something dark with something light, so I try to impart to the client, the logistics and the limitations.
Which types of tattoos don’t work well for cover ups? Have you ever had to turn someone away?
The only reason I would turn someone down is if they were asking for something that was not really feasible to do as a cover up. You can’t cover black tribal with pink peonies — it’s not paint.
Worse is when people don’t want any color, when someone comes to me wanting just open line work with little shading, like a botanical line drawing of flowers. Botanical drawings are very popular now because of Pinterest. (And they’re awesome, I do love botanical drawings!)
Imagine that a cover up is on acetate. It blends with what’s underneath, it doesn’t cover it. So if you put open line work with little shading over something dark, you’re going to see through it. Some people don’t understand that we’re not painting over it. Unless you’re going with just black, you’re really just camouflaging the old tattoo.
Not every tattooer likes doing cover ups because they can be a burden. A lot of tattooers do not enjoy doing them, and will avoid doing them.
Do you like doing them?
Yes, I do, I enjoy doing them. I’ve had people come see me who had been turned away from other shops where they were literally told there was nothing that could be done other than laser removal, because they just didn’t want to deal with it.
When should you definitely get laser removal?
If the new tattoo is not viable as a cover up over the old tattoo, like, if you have black tribal and want pink peonies.
What if I don’t want laser removal?
I have an old friend who had 90’s style heavy black tribal and he wanted it covered with red roses. He didn’t want to do laser removal. So I had to spend time trying to lighten the black with white and off-white ink to mix in with the black. That had to heal and settle, and then we could go over it with a new tattoo.
Does that damage the skin, to tattoo over it so many times?
There is that potential, but you’d have to really fuck it up. If you tattoo over the same time area too many times the skin texture might change but it’s not prohibitive at that level. That’s not a factor. Unless you have some kind of [health] issue, it’s not problematic, it’s done by a professional. If you don’t want to laser, that’s sometimes what’s required.
What’s something that people might not know about cover ups?
You can’t rush it. It takes time, it’s a process. It’s not a single event.
Even if we can do the tattoo in one sitting and the new tattoo covers up the old one nicely, you’ll still need to let it heal, let the ink have time to settle in and camouflage the old tattoo, and then come in again to troubleshoot. I’ll look at it and see what spots need touch ups, where the old tattoo comes through. That’s what touch ups are for. It depends on the skin. It depends on what was underneath.
What are some of your favorites that stood out to you over the years?
One woman had got out of an abusive marriage and I covered her tattooed wedding band with a butterfly. Sometimes it’s just an old tattoo that’s embarrassing because of the execution or the subject matter, something that they have low self esteem about, like maybe it’s poorly done because your homie did it in his garage.
Most of them are just little things from the past that they want to get rid of, sometimes it’s not that profound. You want to like all your tattoos.
Have you done any that really didn’t work?
Hmm, if I don’t think it’s going to work I wouldn’t do it. I do try to emphasize informed consent and be realistic, manage the client’s expectations.
Send your tattoo questions for Jo to firstname.lastname@example.org