Under cover (up) assignment

Experts spill some ink on remedying bad tattoos


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“Run… RABBI Run?”

It’s sometime in the ’90s. And everybody — or at least every other everybody — has a tattoo these days, it seems.

Here at the 17th Avenue offices of a fledgling alt-weekly called Fast Forward Weekly, an editor squints with mock-incredulity at a scrawny freelancer’s freshly inked arm.

“Run RABBIT Run,” corrects the affronted freelancer, now also peering questioningly at the script etched onto his body.

He lifted the phrase from the lyrics to the Clash song “Bankrobber,” which extolled the virtues of not working for a living. (This being the “slacker” era and all….)

But, he soon realizes he can’t really blame the editor for failing to recognize the words. It is hard to read — the letters are raised, kind of like braille, and all mushed together — the tattooist had dug the needle in too deep, causing ridge-like scarring. Not helping matters any, he also, without consulting his client, decided to add some speed streaks to the lettering, making the existing blob of colour even more indecipherable.

No better is the main image above the text on the freelancer’s right bicep.

It’s a stick figure of sorts. A monkey, perhaps? No, it’s the logo of a band — Social Distortion — a jaunty skeleton wearing a fedora and holding a cigarette in one hand, a martini in the other.

Not that you can tell by looking at this particular rendering, which looks like it was hastily executed using a Bic pen.

Yes, the ’90s…. Everyone, it seems, is getting tattooed. But few as badly as this….

2012. Heather McLean, an artist at Strange World Tattoo in Calgary’s northwest, surveys the arm of a potential client coming in for a cover-up.


“What does it say?” she asks of the lumpen blob resembling text on the man’s arm.

“Run Rabbit Run,” he answers without offense — no one, ever, in close to two decades, has been able to make out the words.

“Well…” she says, mustering perhaps the nicest words anyone has ever had to say about it: “At least it’s really faded.”

She loads up her portfolio on a screen and the two begin looking at designs that might work over top of the existing tattoo.

“How about an image that’s an exact re-creation of my skin?” proposes the client.

“That’s called removal,” she says patiently. She explains that the new design will have to be much larger, and much darker than the preexisting image.

Scrolling through her work, it’s pretty evident that McLean has talent to spare and has acquired considerable skills in her 13 years wielding a tattoo gun. Two of her custom tattoos in particular — portraits of Salvador Dali and Jean-Paul Sartre — are stunningly realistic and well-executed.

As cool as those are, though, a similar design wouldn’t work in a cover-up — too much of the underlying skin needs to remain visible in creating pieces like these.

But, there’s a recurring image in some of her other designs that catches the client’s eye — big, beautiful ravens.

“That would work perfect,” she says, and they agree to proceed with something in that vein.


The deal being sealed, McLean is asked if cover-ups account for much of her business.

“About half of it,” she says.


“Oh yeah.... There’s way more bad tattooists and tattoos out there than good ones, so the cover-up business is at least half of what I do,” echoes another artist, Dan Cameron of Deadly Tattoos.

“The advancement in everything — technologically, artistically — it’s come a long way, so that’s better. The thing is, there’s way more tattooers now. So, per capita, there’s way more bad tattooers in relation to good ones.”

McLean, too, speaks of a tattoo “renaissance” that began to emerge in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but really began to flourish in the early 2000s as more people than ever opted for body art. But, like Cameron, she acknowledges that all that new, talented blood in the industry has come mixed with some lesser talents.

“It’s always been that way,” she says. “It’s just now there are more artists saturating the market — there’s more people that are going to be awesome and more that are, maybe, not so awesome.”

Which brings us back to her latest client — and I suppose we can drop the second-person pretense now — it’s me, the writer of this article.

The memories come flooding back as McLean talks of the pre-renaissance tattoo shops as being like something “out of a movie” — “the stereotype of the big, scary biker dudes smoking in a tiny shop in the red light district,” as she puts it.

It’s not like there weren’t viable options in those days — Calgary had long boasted one of the world’s premier parlours, Smiling Buddha in Marda Loop, and there were many newer operations emerging in the nascent tattoo explosion doing skilled work.

My friends and I, though, being young, feckless and broke, opted for something else. The shop we visited, long since gone, was on Centre Street North, and it certainly looked the part — the sign of the store next door boasted a large, neon “XXX,” while the proprietor of the tattoo shop not only had a nautical nickname — let’s just call him Cap’N for the purposes of this piece — but also looked as though he might enjoy the occasional ride on a Harley.

Most appealingly, though, he worked cheap. What could go wrong?

We were all marred one way or another — the arm band that didn’t quite connect, the back piece that looked as though it had been coloured in with a dull Sharpie and, of course, the Bic-pen evoking stick monkey….


Of course, today’s tattoo customer is likely a more sophisticated sort — the kind of person who does their research before committing to permanent body alteration….

Well, not always.

“I was just talking to a client about this…. people stop by and they’ll be like, ‘I want to get a sleeve and a friend recommended you,’” says Cameron, describing an all too common occurrence. “I’ll be talking to them for like half an hour, and I’ll be like have you seen my work and everything. ‘Nope.’ You never looked at my portfolio online or anything? ‘Oh no, my friend said that you’re good.’”

Cameron and McLean both emphasize that the Number 1 line of defence against getting a regrettable tattoo comes by thoroughly sussing out potential artists’ portfolios, either online or in the books at the shop. It seems a no-brainer, but as my own story attests, brains aren’t always a mitigating factor.

“The portfolio is the only thing that’s important — you need to see what they’re capable of. Not just to see if they’re a good artist, but someone’s portfolio will give you a good indication of what type of work they do,” concurs McLean. “If someone has a portfolio that’s all black work or all portraits, you’re not going to go in and ask them for a crazy colour image. It’s important not just to see if the quality of the portfolio is good, but to make sure that the project that you want to do matches with the portfolio of the artist you’re looking at.”

In addition, McLean says don’t be impetuous when it comes to choosing your design — when it comes to the tattoos that adorn her own body, she says she’ll typically sit on an idea for a year or more before even approaching an artist.

“Maybe that seems like a long time, but if it’s going to be on me for the rest of my life, what the hell is a year or two?” she says.


Other guidelines to follow are a lot faster and looser — after all, one person’s personalized work of art is another’s atrocity. But both artists say your best bet is to avoid the temporal and go for the timeless.


“Tribal arm bands, tramp stamps, all those cliché funny tattoos that people are stuck with now…” Cameron says, listing designs you may come to regret. “I know script is really big now — huge — so that’s something I feel is going that way, because it’s so big and so trendy. It’s not necessarily the best tattoo to put on the body. It doesn’t really work.”

He further explains that text-based tats, especially longer ones, don’t typically age well because, as the image softens over time, the gaps between the letters tend to fuzz out.

“Somewhere in the future, I think most people are going to regret it,” he says. “One word or something — that can be timeless, if you make it big enough and space it out where it’s just a nice, flowing image.”

Unless — and both artists stress this vehemently — that one or two words is the name of your significant other. For reasons the statistics on breakups bear out, this is one of the most common cover-ups tattooists deal with — so much so, that a legend of jinx has developed around it.

“I’ve heard some gnarly stories, man,” says Cameron. “Forty-year-old marriages that broke up six months after the tattoo is done.”

“I’ve seen so many people get their partner’s name or portrait on them, and then they’re done in like a year,” agrees McLean. “Like, dude, if you want to end the relationship, get your partner’s name tattooed on you, because you’re going to be seeing me again in a year to get it covered up.”

McLean says another trend to be careful of in script-based tattoos involves getting passages done in a language other than your own. Besides the whole issue of cultural appropriation, translation is often a problem.

“Probably the worst one is Latin — people think they’re getting some big, epic thing and it’s completely incorrect,” she says. “We’ve seen it a lot where someone thinks they’re getting ‘Strength’ and it turns out to be, whatever… ‘No MSG.’”


But, what to do if it’s too late for such advice and you’ve got a regrettable tat? The easiest solution is to live with it — it is part of your story, after all.


“People with a bad tattoo learn to love it because they’re stuck with it,” says Cameron. “You’re wearing it. You might not always want that AC/DC thing on your shoulder, but there was a time and a place… so maybe it holds some sentimental value.”

Or… perhaps not. Meet Marnie Bye, a postal worker in her mid-30s.

“I’ve got bad tattoos — like, maple-leaf-on-the-tit bad,” says Bye. “My body is a cliché of the ’90s. It was pretty hot and sexy back then — it’s like an identity crisis that you wear on your body.”

While Bye says she hasn’t quite come to terms with the tattoo choices of her younger self, at least she seems to have a sense of humour about it.

“A tattoo on the tit is just a bad idea,” she sort-of-jokes. “It just screams ‘prison.’”

Of course, removal is always an option, but hearing Sarah Yasmin’s story likely won’t leave anyone laughing. Now in her 40s, she’s been undergoing treatments with a dermatologist to remove a tattoo she had done 16 years ago. The design commemorated her father, who had passed away shortly before she got inked, but for reasons she declines to delve into, Yasmin says that after much soul-searching she came to realize her intent was misguided.

“I came to realize he was not a person worth honouring,” is all she says of the matter.

Yasmin has been going to laser removal sessions for the past 15 months, but there’s still more to come before the job is complete.

“This thing that I put on my body… which, I think, cost $75, is probably going to cost me $4,000 to get it off,” she says.

And, she adds, the price has exacted more than a monetary toll.

“The pain of it is incredible. I’ve never experienced something like that,” she says. “I’ve broken bones, I’ve had injuries, but it’s… significant pain. The session itself takes just a few minutes, and you feel a really terrible burning [and] searing pain. Hopefully it doesn’t blister, because if it does that’s not good. It definitely scabs and bleeds a bit. A week later you can see what it looks like — you can tell that it’s faded. It’s like a gradual fading.”

Although, at the time of writing, a little over a week after McLean administered my cover-up, I too am suffering from a fair bit of scabbing (which was preceded by about seven days of feeling like someone had carved a donair out of my arm), hearing Yasmin’s account leaves me grateful I didn’t go the removal route.

If you’re considering a cover-up, McLean has some additional homework for you — namely, when you’re checking out those artist portfolios, make sure that the artist has specific experience in that realm, and look closely for photographs of cover-ups taken a few weeks after the procedure.


“When a tattoo is fresh it looks fantastic — you want to see what it looks like when it’s healed,” she explains. “Did the old tattoo come through at all? Did it actually work as a cover-up? Anyone can put a tattoo over another tattoo.”

Fortunately for me, there’s no longer any sign of the goofy, blurry skeleton that held court on my arm for so long. In its stead is a magnificently rendered large black bird, with a second smaller one flying above it. (As the old poem goes — “One crow brings sorrow, two bring mirth.” Call me superstitious, but I did some homework this time.)

While the beauty of these things is clearly in the eye of the beholder — I know a certain mom who, judging by her reaction to the first one, will be none too pleased by this larger design — I think it’s great. Which is really the one opinion that matters.

And, at the very least, no one will ever again ask “What does that say?”



Comments: 1

ShankRiley wrote:

Absolutely beautiful and creative cover up tattoo. I love my forearm tattoos and while it's true that almost everyone has a tattoo these days it's also true that many employers are not cool with ink. I am actually required to cover up my tattoos. I wear two Ink Armor sleeves: http://www.tat2x.com They sleeves work great but looking back I wish I had gotten inked further up my arms. Too bad there's not a cover up tattoo for me.

on Oct 11th, 2012 at 4:17pm Report Abuse

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