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.
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.)
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 worked 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.