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Tattoo 2.0

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Tattoo cover-ups are one option for people who regret their choice of skin art. (Courtesy of West Side Tattoo)

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Tattoo artists create a new focal point in a cover-up in order to draw attention away from the old image. (Courtesy of West Side Tattoo)

The melting-Jesus tattoo seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was Brian Moore’s 18th birthday, and he had been counting the days until he could legally get a tattoo. By the time the sun went down, he was sporting not only the melting Jesus but two Celtic armbands.

A decade later, Moore, who lives in Colorado Springs, was having second thoughts, particularly after his mother became a minister. “It was a stupid thing to do,” Moore says now of his choice of skin art.

But what could he do? Laser removal might do the trick, but it requires numerous treatments that are both tedious and expensive. For Moore and thousands of others who have discovered that forever lasts far too long, the only reasonable option is to cover an old tattoo with a new one.

Moore’s original tattoos have now morphed into an acid-green face with large teeth. To him, it is all part of growing up. “Everything changes,” he says, “Your job changes. Your look changes.”

Tattooing has come a long way since the days when it was the mark of a sailor or a jailbird. A 2003 Harris poll found that 16 percent of Americans–-or 35 million people–-now sport at least one tattoo. That number rises to more than one-third among those between the ages of 25 and 29, according to the poll.

Such soaring popularity has spawned a boom in tattoo parlors and a new challenge: second thoughts. Moore says he now realizes that permanent ink means “loving something for the rest of your life.”

Tattoos are legendary for their durability. A 5,000-year-old mummy, Otzi the Iceman, bore several well-preserved tattoos when he was discovered in a glacier in Austria in 1991.

Tattoos are created by using a needle to deposit ink in the second layer of skin, called the dermis. Unlike the epidermis, which is the top layer of skin, the dermis does not shed, so the ink stays in place--forever.

The cover-up presents a special challenge for tattoo artists. They need to incorporate the old image in such a way that it doesn’t distract from the new one. “When you’re working with clean skin, there are really no boundaries,” says a New York City tattoo artist known professionally as H.S. “When you do an outline on a cover-up, it’s a lot more dense.”

As a result, a general rule for cover-ups is that they are usually bigger and darker than the original tattoo. Some artists use color to cover faded black ink. “It’s all a matter of strategy, of using the open available space,” says Bill Funk, an artist and owner of Body Graphics Tattoo in Philadelphia.

In most cover-ups, the artist will sketch an outline around the old tattoo, usually drawing the focal point away from the original image. For example, a rose will become part of a butterfly’s wing. Funk says a talented artist can, on occasion, cover an old tattoo with a new one of the same size. His portfolio includes such cover-ups as an aquatic scene featuring an octopus that was formerly an image of Indian beads and feathers. Another client came in with a tribal design on her back that Funk transformed into a still from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Funk believes the current near-ubiquity of tattoos has led to a gold-rush mentality in which unqualified people open tattoo shops hoping to cash in on the trend. Tattoo artists are licensed by the state, but the licensing tests are mostly designed to protect against mishaps like the passing of blood-borne pathogens, rather than refining technique.

The industry standard is for artists to have a three-year apprenticeship, but many who style themselves as artists do not have such training. “We call them ‘scratchers’ in the industry,” says Funk, who’s been in business for 30 years. He says that poor craftsmanship inevitably leads to more clients seeking qualified artists who can cover their inferior tattoos.

Luckily, technology has improved in recent years. Today’s tattoo artists use different-sized needles, which allow them to create fine details and shading. More-vibrant inks also make covering a decades-old tattoo far easier. “If you got a tattoo in jail 20 years ago,” says H.S., the tattoo artist in New York. “Chances are I’ll sneeze and cover it up. If it’s really old and faded, it makes it easier.”

According to the Harris poll, the most common tattoos that people regret are, not surprisingly, the names of former husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. Others just grow tired of seeing the same picture in the mirror every day.

“Make sure you’re not going to get sick of looking at it,” warns Matt Carroll of Philadelphia to anyone considering permanent body art. He covered an amateur tattoo from his teenage years–-the word “death” in graffiti-style letters–-with an intricate (and professional) image of the vixenish, blade-carrying video game character BloodRayne.

By the time Moore decided his enthusiasm for tattooing had gotten in the way of his better judgment, he had already covered a significant amount of skin with ink. “By the time I was 19, my whole left arm, back and ribs were done,” he says. “Now I’m covering all that up.”

Moore also now counsels others who have made the same mistake. He and his brother Aaron are the owners of West Side Tattoo in Colorado Springs, and he likes to use his personal experience as a lesson to young clients. “We try to tell kids all the time, ‘Are you sure you’re going to want this years from now?’” he says.

His warnings will only go so far, however. “We’ll still do that Godsmack sign,” he says, referring to the tribal sun symbol of the hard-rock band Godsmack, “if that’s what they want.”

And if they hate it in 10 years, Moore will be ready to welcome them back to his shop for a cover-up.

E-mail: jt2235@columbia.edu