That’s a question we tattoo artists get asked a lot- “Can you tattoo over scar tissue?”
The answer to this question is yes, no, and maybe. It is possible to tattoo scars, (meaning, you can insert ink into scar tissue), but it’s important to realize that scar tissue differs from the rest of one’s flesh. It’s rough, rigid and much less porous. We’ll go into some detail below, but I want to say, first, that I’m no expert in dermatology; this blog is offered only as a starting place and guide to help people with scars and questions to navigate their options. My opinions are solely based on my experiences tattooing on and around scars, and on a very basic, working understanding of skin anatomy, (which every good tattooer should grasp.)
What kind of scar is it? Is it a stretch mark? Was it from a cut? How deep was it? How deep does the scar tissue go? Are you prone to keloid? Is it a raised scar? Scars aren’t the exact same type of tissue as regular skin, and scar tissue tends to be more sensitive than routine skin. Is there nerve damage in the area of your scar? If so, the nerve damage may increase the discomfort you feel when you get a tattoo. Are you wanting to alter the texture of a scar? Tattooing won’t change the texture and it will not eliminate the scar.
What can tattooing over and around scars accomplish for those interested?
There are a few things that covering a scar with a beautiful and meaningful tattoo can do for people.
It can, on occasion, completely mask the scar so as to leave it virtually undetectable to the average viewer.
For larger scars or those which an artist is not able to cover completely or directly, a well-executed tattoo can disguise the scarred skin using color, shape, design, and positioning. Experience is what matters most here. Find a PRO with before and after photos of her/his work and experience.
Tattoos can also assist some in reclaiming their bodies after ailment or injury.
Scars often symbolize one’s ability to survive, so there are psychological elements worth considering, too- like helping women regain their sense of femininity after mastectomy surgical treatment. Artists like Vinnie Myers of Little Vinnie Tattoos in Baltimore, MD, are well known for this type of work (and often have extensive waiting lists) because of his vast experience assisting reconstructive surgeons, tattooing areolae and nipples on breast cancer survivors.
This isn’t something brand-spanking new, either; legendary tattoo innovator Sailor Jerry Collins of Hawaii was a forerunner of cosmetic and reconstructive tattooing in the late 1960s and early 70s.
What about someone with extensive burns or other extreme scars? There are artists out there with personal experience in this area, and my limited knowledge pales in comparison when it comes to large areas of scarring. An artist like famed San Franciscan, Brett Grimmelbein, (aka Grime, the Grime, Grime-Monster, Mr. Grime, etc), who himself suffered 3rd degree burns over the majority of his body as a child, has had extensive tattooing over the years, (by other, top notch tattoo artists such as Guy Aitchison and Marcus Pacheco), and has a near-complete body suit. It is common for tattoo artists who have needed this type of work, personally, to work closely with other scarred clients, using their own experiences, expertise, art and skill to help each individual obtain a body they can come to love and be proud of. [Grime can be found at Skull & Sword Tattoo, in SF, CA.] [Guy can be found at HyperSpaceStudios.com]
Are there limits to tattooing over scars? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. For starters, the skin will almost certainly hold the ink in a different way than the surrounding skin. Lines may be less defined, shading and color could require repeat sessions. Still, there is so much that can be done within these limits.
How does it work? Tattoos created for scarred skin should utilize color, texture, layout and other design principles to create art that will disguise the scar, even if it can’t be directly or effectively tattooed over. These aspects of design are used to draw the viewers’ eye away from the scar, leaving it much less noticeable or, in ideal situations, even completely camouflaged.
When is it best to tattoo on or around a scar? First, the scars need time to heal. All scars heal at different rates based upon both the injury and your very own body’s response. Some can heal in a few months, and some may take years. There are a number of things you can do to help facilitate healing scars in the meantime, like using Vitamin E oil or even silicone patches which can be obtained over the counter. General health and hydration are important factors, as well.
A tattoo is essentially a controlled collection of puncture wounds filled with colored pigment. [It can’t be overstated, for a quality tattoo, go to trained professionals.] In order to obtain a good looking tattoo, these punctures can be neither too shallow nor too deep.
Here’s why: Healthy human skin can be understood as consisting of multiple layers- 3 primary ones: the Epidermis, the Dermis, and the Subcutaneous layers.
The Epidermis: The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin, which can be understood to contain 5 layers, itself: from top to bottom, The Corneum, Licidum, Granulosum, Spiosum and Basale stratums of the epidermis. The epidermis varies in thickness from .05 mm around the eyelids to 1.5mm at the thickest spots o the body, such as the palms and soles of the feet. The very top layer (the Corneum layer) is composed of flattened, dead and dying skin cells- cells at the end of their life-cycle, which have been pushed upwards by the newly forming cells at the lowest, Basale layer, where the cells divide and push already existing cells upward. This process of new cells forming and pushing dying cells to the surface is continual, and we shed this layer of cells completely every few weeks. The epidermis is necessary for sensing our environment and providing protection to our bodies, acting as a barrier to keep infectious organisms out. It also hold fluid and helps regulate body temperature, as well as shielding raw nerves from over-stimulation.
The Dermis: This layer is composed of two other layers, the Papillary, which is a thin layer of fingerlike structures reaching into the dermis and holding them each together, and the Reticular layer, which is much thicker and makes up most of the dermis.
The Subcutaneous layer: Also known as the hypodermis. Technically, the subcutaneous layer is not actually skin, but is what attaches the skin to what lies beneath it. It contains fat cells and protects blood vessels.
Properly executed tattoos: Since the upper layer of the skin, (the epidermis) is in a constant state of flux as it sheds the old, dead skin cells, a properly executed tattoo, must penetrate through the epidermis and settle the ink pigment droplets into the upper dermis layer. But, as so many scratcher victims have come to understand by experience, excessive bleeding and permanent scarring can occur when the needle strikes are too deep, penetrating through the epidermal and dermal layers to the hypodermis (or subcutaneous) layer, down into the fat cells and often even puncturing vulnerable blood vessels. Over-working an area of skin can also result in what we sometimes refer to as the ‘hamburger effect’, slicing and chopping the skin so severely that it also scars. Get tattoos from professionals, folks, (or risk even more damage and/or cover ups later.)
So, here’s the main point. Thanks for sticking with me. What is a scar?
A SCAR is the body’s biological way of repairing itself when wounded. Scar tissue is made of the same collagen protein as the skin it replaces, but its fibrous tissue composition will forever be different. It’s tight, interwoven structure is extremely dense and rather non-porous in comparison to normal skin, where ink droplets can settle easily into the open, even holes created by the tattoo needles. Scar tissue is so compact, in fact, that hair follicles and sweat glands are generally unable to grow back through the new scar tissue.
The uneven nature of the scar tissue means that the punctures created by tattoo needles are formed in a much tougher and inconsistent surface and it usually results in significantly less pigment droplets settling into even and controlled patterns. A lot of the ink will be rejected, simply pushed back out by the contracting scar tissue. All this provides a very uneven surface on the cellular level to work on, in and with.
CONCLUSION: So, yeah, you can tattoo over scars, but it’s likely that the ink inserted into those parts of your body will appear substantially different than that in surrounding areas. It’s up to you and your professional tattoo artist to come together and work out the option best suited for your specific needs. Some scars are just not going to be able to work with as well as others. Working around scars can help mask them and, once understood, these factors can be taken into account and designed in to the aesthetic from the very beginning of the drawing phase. This is what is generally considered most effective when one is wanting to disguise or distract from scars or stretch marks. A well-trained professional artist working in a reputable tattoo shop should be able to help you understand your options and design something both effective and beautiful, depending on the age, depth and location of the scar(s). Here’s hoping we each come to love our bodies, (they’re the only ones we got), scars and all.