I got my first tattoo when I was 19 years old. My best friend, M, and I were about to embark on a cross-country road trip and in order to mark the occasion of our newfound youthful independence, as well as further establish our bond as besties, we decided to get tattoos.
I spent a long time designing mine; I was into drawing in pen and ink back then. My design was inspired by a combination of my freshman Eco-Feminism class and one summer night of hallucinatory intoxication. It was a tree, more specifically a naked lady tree, stretching her branches in two opposing directions. One arm pushed the moon up into the sky and the other pushed the sun down. The lines were intricate, but the overall design was fairly simple. I planned for it to be on the side of my back, along my waistline. At the last minute, my mother convinced me to make it smaller.
M’s older brother did the tattooing. Halfway through the tattoo, I heard the worst word you can ever hear from a tattoo artist: “Oops.” M’s brother didn’t realize that the sun was a sun. He thought the tree was dripping or something. Dripping what, I don’t know. Anyway, his attempt to fix it only made it worse and I ended up with a marginal tattoo. On the bright side, our road trip was awesome!
Things I learned from that encounter:
• Make sure your tattoo artist is experienced.
• Check out photos of a tattoo artist’s work to see if it is in a style similar to what you want.
• Spend a lot of time discussing your design with the tattoo artist before they ink it.
About two years later, while traveling in San Francisco, my college roommate, P, took me to a “world famous” tattoo parlor where she had gotten her amazing full back tattoo. I was still optimistic/naïve/stupid (pick one) at this point. I brought in a picture of my original tattoo, but I had added some subtle shading to help fill it out in all the right places, and a little bit of color to show that the dripping was actually a sun.
P stayed to flirt with the distracted tattoo artist I'd only met five minutes before being randomly assigned to him. He went to town on my tattoo. A half hour later, the subtle shading I had discussed with him ended up being a dark puddle of gray. The branches were thinned with heavy lines. The face on the lady was squashed and nearly indecipherable.
It looked worse! But I didn’t actually realize that at the time -- maybe I was in denial; maybe I was high from the endorphins. Whatever it was, I paid and walked out smiling.
But a few months later, someone asked me if I had a tattoo of a morel mushroom on my back. I was horrified. From a distance, it didn’t even look like a tree anymore.
Things I learned from that experience:
• Just because a tattoo parlor is famous for being good, doesn’t mean the tattoo artist you get will be.
• Check the work intermittently to make sure the artist is on the right track.
• If you don’t like the work, say something.
I decided to just live with it. Mainly I was scared to make it worse, scared I'd make another bad choice about the tattoo or the artist. I felt lucky it wasn't on a conspicuous part of my body.
It took me 20 years to finally take action to fix that tattoo. During those years, I got two more tatts (they are both small and solid black; nothing fancy). I don’t know what made me decide to brave putting the tree lady under the needle again. Maybe I just wanted to feel more confident in my bikini, or maybe I wanted to face my fear. I knew that as long as I had that bad tattoo on my back, I'd never be able to get another big or elaborate tattoo.
I did some research about cover-up tattoos. I asked around town to find a good artist, and I met with her three times before I went in for the tattoo. She drew on me to show me what it would look like, and I walked around with the markings for a while to make sure it looked right. We discussed in detail how I wanted it to look, the colors I wanted to use. Still, I was anxious. I decided just to give myself over to my tattoo artist and put my trust in her. I couldn’t control the outcome and I had to just hope for the best.
Things I learned from this artist about cover-up tattoos:
• The older the tattoo is, the easier it is to cover up.
• You should cover up a tattoo with darker colors.
• It’s better to incorporate the old tattoo into a new design.
• Cover-ups are not exact, and require some free-hand design, so make sure you have a great artist.
• Sometimes it takes more than one sitting to complete the cover-up.
I decided to cover my tree lady with another tree. I wanted to honor the original idea, because although that first tattoo was horrible, I never want to forget the youth that inspired it. The new tree is larger, colored with shades of green and brown. The roots reach out and down my back. The new tree has no lady and no moon. Instead of a bleeding sun, there is a vibrant sunset.
Overall it looks great, and I'm so much happier with it -- I no longer feel embarrassed by my ugly tattoo when I wear a bikini. And I'm already planning what I’m going to get inked on my body next.
Do you have a tattoo you hate and want covered up (or one you already did cover up)?