Covering a Tattoo

Benna Crawford
Tattoo removal before and after

The clever inky squid wrapped around your navel is a tattoo fail - and it's bikini season. Your dream job gives the squint eye to candidates who are visibly inked. Your strapless wedding gown looks weird with your barbed wire arm tats. When you face situations like these, it's time for those tats to go undercover.

Why Hide Your Tattoo

Even when you're proud of your gorgeous ink and happy to show it off, there are those occasions when it is to your advantage to sport pristine, unmarked skin. Ink-free skin rocks at the Wall Street job interview and the Thanksgiving family reunion at the home of mom's brother Uncle Thaddeus-Who-Always-Regarded-You-As-Your-Mother's-Greatest-Failure. An absence of tats is a good thing in the procession down the aisle behind your best friend as her maid-of-honor in a backless dress, or at the audition that could make your career. Temporarily sporting a stealth tattoo, disguised so it is known only to the cognoscenti, is a perfectly good option. You don't have to permanently remove your precious tat to conceal its existence.

Basic Makeup Concealer

Makeup products and accessories

Cover color with color to "erase" a prized tattoo for an event or photo shoot. Makeup is what they use in Hollywood, so why wouldn't you want to star in your own show? To use makeup as a basic tattoo coverup:

  • Buy three shades of a medical concealer (such as CoverBlend Multi-function Medical Concealer, available for about $25), which is used to cover scars or discolorations: one in your skin tone, one a shade lighter and one two shades lighter.
  • Apply the makeup to the tattoo only - not the surrounding skin - with a concealer brush. (If your tat is in an awkward spot, enlist the help of an art major friend.)
  • Begin with the lightest shade; follow with the next, slightly deeper, shade; and finish with your skin-tone shade.
  • If you've blended the concealer carefully, all that's left is to dust a light coat of matching loose powder over the area and gently blot it off.

Pro Job

A few tips and tricks are helpful tweaks to your basic concealer makeup - or finishing touches to bring a drugstore makeup cover-up job up to par.

  • Clean the area with a drying alcohol wipe to remove any oil and create a 'grabby' surface for make-up.
  • Oil-free makeup primer (like Smashbox Photo Finish Primer, just over $35) makes a good undercoat so the skin-matching foundation or concealer will adhere.
  • Stipple a concealer (or concealing foundation) over the tattoo. Use a color just a bit lighter than your skin tone. A small sponge or concealer brush is a good tool for this job - it gives you better control than you fingers.
  • Apply skin-color concealer over the first layer with a very small synthetic brush (no hair-shedding natural brushes).
  • Dab on loose powder with a fluffy powder brush to set the concealer.
  • Spray the art work with make-up setting spray (like Urban Decay All-Nighter Setting Spray, just over $30), to help the products stay in place.
  • Stay out of sudden downpours, and your tattoo secret is safe.

Literal Cover-Ups

Clothes, accessories, and hairstyles can be simple, literal ways to conceal a tattoo. Long-sleeved shirts and pants, turtlenecks, scarves, boots, and socks let you choose where and when to make the big reveal. You don't have to swelter in mid-summer or look like a mummy, however, to observe workplace standards or address the PTA.

  • A wide bracelet that clasps your arm hides a wrist tattoo. So do decorative tennis or runners' wristbands. Wristwatches are back in fashion - get one with a wide band for another option to cover a wrist tattoo
  • Very full hair extensions (or your own long locks) keep your neck and upper back out of view.
  • Scarves can be worn strategically to cover in tattoos. Lightweight, breezy styles can even be worn in warmer weather.
  • Tights and leggings are not only trendy, but they can help hide a leg or ankle tattoo when you're wearing a dress or skirt.
  • Full-length stretch fabric sleeves cover your full sleeve at work and pull right off when you're on party time. Cover-up sleeves come in four skin tones - and a raft of fashion colors to mimic shirts - and are elasticized to stay in place. Skin tone sleeves are sold two to a pack for about $20 a pair from Tat Jacket. A single Ink Armour sleeve in your choice of solid colors from Tat2X will set you back about $16.00. Bonus: cover-up sleeves protect your tats from fading ultraviolet rays so your vivid ink lasts longer.

Fake Tattoo

Remember those pretend tattoos you got at birthday and Halloween parties? You applied them face-down to your skin, pressed a damp washcloth over the area for about 30 seconds, peeled off the backing and you had a cool tattoo. They lasted for a couple of days, depending on how much you washed them. Well, now you can do the same thing to hide a real tattoo.

Hide Ink Tattoo Covers come in several skin tones - a sample variety pack or single skin tone pack is about $10.00. To use:

  • Cut a shape from a sheet of the cover to fit the area around, and on, your tat.
  • Apply it with a damp compress, allow it to settle for a bit so it conforms to your skin, and you're tattoo-free.
  • Conceal a very dark or vivid tattoo with two layers of Hide Ink.

While this may not be a perfect solution for every situation, it works without messy makeup, mollifies tetchy Granny, and will get you through the wedding or job interview without coming off on your clothes. Hide Ink peels or scrubs off.

The Pain of Parting

Giorgio was your forever-love, your heartthrob on steroids, your cheating Prince Charming. Buh-bye, Giorgio. It's not so simple to kick that hearts-and-flowers-around-the-Giorgio-banner art work to the curb, though. You have two choices to get the cad out of your life and off your skin for good: cover-up ink and complete removal.

Cover Art

Tattoo machine

Invest in a great tattoo artist to create a new tat over the old one and give you a fresh start in life. The best cover-up tattoos incorporate the old design into a new one so it "disappears" and can no longer be distinguished. Sometimes this means tattooing over all or part of the old lines. Almost always it means the new tat will be at least 30% bigger than the old tat, as the area is covered by new scenery that integrates and obfuscates what was already there.

Your wormy-looking caterpillar becomes a glittering, reticulated snake. "I Love Mom" turns into a scene from Star Wars. A tribal tat goes steampunk; a couple of cartoon stars around a fading Radiohead tattoo morphs into a man-in-the-moon awash in a swirl of constellations. White ink applied over old dark ink can lighten a tat by about 10%, and colors are now good enough to cover black. Color-on-color is tricky, so do find an artist who knows how to brilliantly cover a tat.

Ideas for Ink-Overs

Before After

Check these sites for inspiration if you want to ink over your old tat.

  • The Chive: This website offers 30 photos of creative cover up tattoo designs and provides ideas for many different placements.
  • Inked Magazine: This slideshow from Inked gives examples of gorgeous art with great before and after images.
  • Mental Floss: View ten serious upgrades that show images of before, during, and after the ink-over.

Regrets and Removal

Laser tattoo removal

You need it gone, whether it's that gang or prison tattoo, the Marcy & Jenna BFFs banner, or the truly ugly 'what-was-I-thinking?' Vikings mascot. Dermabrasion, the ancient method of sandpapering the skin to remove the tattooed layer, and surgical excision are no longer your only options, thankfully. Multiple laser treatments to break down the ink and eventually cause it to 'disappear,' however, can seem just as torturous.

Losing permanent ink art is never easy, but developments in laser technology have improved prospects considerably. New laser treatments blast ink into tinier particles that are easier for the body to resorb and eliminate. You need fewer treatments and the procedure causes about the same degree of discomfort as getting a tattoo. High-tech lasering - one method is called PicoSure - can be costly, so check around to find a reputable licensed center or an experienced doctor at a price you can afford. Tattoo removal is generally not covered by medical insurance and it can leave discoloration or scarring. Do your homework to ensure the most favorable outcome for tattoo removal.

Love for the Long Haul

Face it, that seductive tattoo is like any long-term relationship. You'd better invest some time up front in thinking it through. You do have a choice of ways to hide or lose your signature ink art if circumstances require it or your heart is fickle. But cover-ups are always work and occasionally tricky. The surest, simplest way to show a virgin stretch of skin is to skip the amazing ink. When you've done the deed but need to hide all traces, grab the pancake makeup or cruise by your laser clinic to take the tattooed color out of your life.

Covering a Tattoo