Although some people wear scars with pride, others may look at scarred skin as a sort of blemish. If you’re someone who wants to cover their scars, getting a tattoo is a way to draw eyes away from the area. However, the process isn’t as cut and dry as deciding you want one. According to experts, tattooing over a scar requires a lot more forethought.
Here’s what experts say to consider when deciding whether or not to tattoo over a scar.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Shari Sperling is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Sperling Dermatology.
- Anka Lavriv, the cofounder of New York-based tattoo shop Black Iris Tattoo, specializes in fine-line black work and has years of experience tattooing on scarred skin.
- Shaughnessy Otsuji is a cosmetic tattoo artist and founder of Studio Sashiko.
- Gianna Caranfa is the founder of Beeinked Tattoo Parlor in Westchester County, New York.
Along with preparation, tattoo artist Anka Lavriv says there are a few more things to consider when deciding whether or not to tattoo over a scar.
“Prepare yourself to go to a couple of consultations and be realistic about the end result,” says Lavriv. “Make sure to give your body enough time to heal and be patient; rushing into getting tattooed before your skin is ready can result in irreversible disappointment with your new tattoo.”
"Scars in general take a good six months to a year to fully heal. One should wait until the scar is fully healed prior to getting a tattoo. It should be done in a sterile fashion and done by someone who has experience with tattooing over scars to get the best results," adds Dr. Shari Sperling, board-certified dermatologist.
"I would say wait a full year before tattooing over a scar. However it also depends on the severity of the scar, how much trauma, heal time, etc," adds tattoo artist Gianna Caranfa.
Figure Out Whether or Not a Tattoo is Even Possible
According to Lavriv, tattooing over scars can be tricky. Because the process requires experience, she suggests meeting with an artist first and getting an honest opinion about the reality of tattooing a specific scar.
“When I get requests for scar cover-ups, I always have a consultation with the client, assess the scar [in terms of] severity, age, color, placement, and have a conversation about what is the client’s goal with this tattoo. Chances are that it won’t be possible to make the scar disappear completely, but there is a lot that usually can be done in terms of concealing, blending it in with the design and drawing attention away from the scar.”
Overall, how the process goes depends on the scar itself. Lavriv notes that self-harm scars tend to be relatively easy to cover up compared to mastectomy, c-section, keloid, or other scars with major depth and texture.
Is it raised? How deep does the tissue damage go? Has the keloid formed? Is there toughened scar tissue? All of these questions and more should be taken into consideration. "Take extra precaution when working with scars that leave the skin very thin, fragile and overly stretched as this can cause excess trauma to delicate areas," says tattoo artist Shaughnessy Otsuji. "Scars that are very raised and textured should also be approached with caution as to not cause more damage."
"There is one type of scar in particular that doesn't seem to hold ink as well and that is stretch marks due to growth. I see it mostly in men in the area of their inner bicep," adds Caranfa.
Find an Experienced Artist You Love
Because all scars are different and all artists have unique styles, it’s important to find a tattoo artist who both fits your aesthetic and has a fair amount of experience tattooing over scars. Because these tattoos require more effort, time, and precision, going with an experienced artist means that your tattoo will look good during both the tattooing and healing processes. Check out their portfolios and, if they don’t specifically state that they can tattoo over scars, it’s best to contact them directly for confirmation.
Understand That Not All Designs Work
It’s possible to get any design you want, but know that a tattoo will never change the texture or completely erase the scar.
When choosing a design, you must decide whether you want the tattoo to cover the scar or highlight it. You should also take into consideration the size and severity of the scar as this will affect the color, depth, and/or texture you’ll have to incorporate.
“In my opinion, things that have an organic flow and movement—like floral or botanical designs—work great, and severe linework and geometric shapes usually do not because of the difference in the skin quality and texture,” says Lavriv. “That said, it all depends on what you are trying to achieve with your tattoo, and it’s a matter of personal preference.”
Get Ready For a Different Kind of Pain
Let’s be real: Getting a tattoo is painful no matter what. However, unless there’s been nerve damage to the area and the tissue has lost all feeling, scars can become more sensitive than normal skin. Pain around the area will also be different depending on how recent the scar is. You can expect an intense sensation with fresh scars—so much so that some artists will refuse to tattoo them.
Lavriv says you should also consider what the tattooing process will do to the scar, and that follow-ups are absolutely necessary when tattooing scarred skin.
“Scar tissue gets extremely aggravated and raised during the tattooing process, and sometimes it can look shocking, but it’s totally normal and usually the skin calms down after a couple of hours. I always ask my scar cover-up clients to come in for a short touch up session to see how everything settled,” she explains.
Sperling adds, "Tattooing over scar can be more painful compared to normal skin. It also may not heal appropriately and outcomes may not appear as expected due to the scar tissue. The scar may also worsen and become more exaggerated due to the tattoo traumatizing the scar even further."
Set Your Expectations
While tattooing over a scar won’t present any health issues, there are a number of aesthetic risks that you’re taking. If you plan to leave some of your scar exposed, consider that it could get a bit feathered around the edges and smaller lines may appear less defined. Some spaces may not even take the ink at all. If this is the case, don’t panic—an experienced artist can combat these issues with repeated sessions.
Lavriv adds, “Again, I can’t stress having an experienced tattooer do the cover up enough. Because of the different skin texture in scars, there is a way higher chance of blowouts, blurring, [and] spotty healing."
After getting your tattoo, Caranfa recommends to stick to the aftercare routine your tattoo artist sets out for you. "You use the regular routine that your tattoo artist advises for both types of skin."
Prep Your Body And Mind
It’s never a good idea to get tattooed when your skin is irritated, sunburnt, or your immune system is low. There’s also the possibility that a newer scar could reopen, causing the tattoo session to end and requiring medical attention. It’s best to give the scar adequate time to heal to avoid this from happening.
"Clients who are currently undergoing chemotherapy should not get tattooed until it is safe to do so and cleared by their medical professional," says Otsuji. "Those who are currently pregnant or nursing should not receive a tattoo. If you have any skin conditions, autoimmune diseases or pre-existing illnesses, it is always recommended to discuss your options with a doctor first before consulting with a tattoo artist."
Nobody’s body is flawless, but your new tattoo can help you reclaim your self-confidence. With proper preparation and a skilled artist, you can turn your scar into a piece of ink that you’re proud to show off.
American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Scar treatment. Updated 2016.