Tattooing over a scar can be used to mask the scar or to add a feature to the scar. How you want to tattoo your scar depends on your feelings toward the incident leading to your scar and how it affects your confidence. Some of the main considerations in having a scar tattooed include the amount of time you let the scar heal before getting the tattoo, the type of scar, and your pain tolerance level.
“A scar is the technical term for tissue the body makes to right a wrong,” writes David J. Leffell, MD in his book Total Skin: The Definitive Guide to Skin Health for Life.
Consider Your Particular Scar
Giving your scar enough time to heal is imperative, as a tattoo might reopen the original wound. Whether or not this occurs, it is likely to be more painful than a regular tattoo. The type of scar you are looking to cover or highlight plays into this, as each heals at a different pace. It should also be noted that every person’s body heals in a different way. Even the simplest of surgical scars can take over a year to fully heal to the point where they can be tattooed.
“It was a while after I did it that [the tattoo] got done. It hurt less [than my regular tattoos] due to nerve damage around the scar tissue,” said Mr. Balch, who has had tattoos over his scars.
Hypertrophic scars, sometimes called raised scars, may take longer than two years to fully heal, but by the end of the healing process, the “raised” aspect often goes away. The skin will remain thicker in the scarred area, though, so a tattoo covering it will still likely be more painful than on smooth skin. The tattoo also may need more work due to the altered nature of the skin.
Keloid scars, meanwhile, are a tumor of excess scar tissue and tend to be permanent. Due to the excess scar tissue, these scars tend to be more difficult to tattoo and therefore more painful. Often, tattoos around this type of scar are designed not to cover the tattoo, but to hide it in plain sight with a clever design (such as a bird on a branch or as a flower stem).
“The final appearance of a scar has as much to do with its location and movement of the body at that site as it does with the technique used,” writes David J. Leffell.
Advice from a dermatologist is recommended for accuracy of timing before getting a tattoo artist involved. A dermatologist will be able to help estimate for you how long your scar will take to fully heal and how it will change over time due to your skin type. Drinking fluids, especially water, during this time will help your body stay healthy and should aid the healing process
Consider Your Options
While there may be less noticeable ways of hiding scars, such as cosmetic surgery, covering it with a tattoo is usually more cost-effective. Tattoos, depending on the artist, city or town, and size of the tattoo, still tend to average less than $1,000. Meanwhile, the cheapest cosmetic procedures can cost close to or upwards of $10,000.
Finding your Tattoo Artist
The next step in the process, after leaving time to heal, is to find a knowledgeable tattoo artist who has experience working with scars and whose style of art you enjoy. Artists worth their salt should set up multiple consultations with you to discuss what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to put up with to get your scar concealed or enhanced.
This includes warning you that the art may not come out exactly as expected. Due to the nature of how skin shifts around scars, it may be necessary to have touch-ups after the fact to keep the design from smudging. In finding an artist for any tattoo, you should ask to see the artist’s portfolio and check reviews for safety.
Location on the Body
The location on the body where you’re looking to cover a scar with a tattoo could be a deal-breaker if you have a low pain tolerance. As it is, tattooing over scars is generally more painful than a regular tattoo, but there are parts of the body that experience the pain of the tattooing process more intensely than others.
The back, forearms, and outer thighs seem to take tattoos more easily, according to this chart, whereas the knees, chest, and feet tend to be extremely painful tattoo locations.
Atrophic scars, such as stretch marks, are easier to tattoo – for the artist – but are usually located in areas of the body that involve more pain. Coloring and shading of the tattoo also may involve more pain, as the needles used tend to be larger and the process takes more time than the initial tattoo.
The Healing Process
Another consideration is that once a tattoo is finished, it is treated like a wound. Therefore, this scarred part of you will be continuously healing for one reason or another for a long time. Any tattoo can easily become infected, so following the aftercare instructions given by the artist is an important responsibility.
Keeping out of the sun is one of the major ones, as a sunburn would severely damage the skin that has already been wounded, healed, and then wounded again by the tattooing process. The types of clothes you are able to wear while the tattoo is healing could also influence your decision.
For instance, if the scar is on your arm, you may end up wearing long sleeves to cover the wound and then the tattoo until they are healed – which could take several years. Depending on the after-tattoo care instructions, you may also need to stop swimming or doing vigorous exercise until it is fully completed and healed.
Aside from decorative tattoos, another option to conceal a scar would be a medical tattoo, otherwise known as medical micropigmentation3. This method of tattoo restores the original skin color to a scar, making it appear non-existent or flat. Facial scars, research shows, are incredibly difficult for tattoo artists to cover.
However, micro-pigmentation tattooing has been successful in this area. If the scar you’re looking to conceal is on your face or scalp, this may be the best option. In fact, micro-pigmentation is also a popular choice to conceal scars and distorted features on the scalp, generally from hair treatment and replacement surgeries.
Not only is this method safe, but it helps to hide the scar in a less eye-catching way than an artistic tattoo. There have been other recorded uses of this technique as well, but it is still a developing procedure. Since it’s new, it may have rates similar or higher than those of regular cosmetic surgery.
Consider Your Future
The main thing to remember is that skin is flexible. It can stretch or shrink over time, depending on life – if you gain or lose weight, if you have a baby, as you age. This may change the shape and size of your scar, and, if you get a tattoo over it, the appearance of said tattoo. Will the scar even be noticeable in another few years? Will the design you’ve picked still look good on the scar’s location in a few years? Don’t forget to make the future a part of your present-day plans.
Getting a tattoo over your scar can be an empowering experience that lets you paint the past with your own message and allows you to take forward into your future what is precious to you. Choose a great artist, think about your pain levels and consider your type of scar before you dive into this momentous choice. If done right, you will gain a permanent adornment that will help you heal your present.