Why I Made the Tough Decision to Cover Up a Meaningful Tattoo

cover up a meaningful tattoo
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I have come to believe that making a regrettable tattoo choice is truly just part of living your best life. It means that for a brief moment in time you felt something so strongly that the idea of ever changing your mind about it seemed impossible.

But unlike other choices made in a vacuum of blissful ignorance, like a perm or blue contact lenses, tattoos are forever. You can’t grow them out or take them off. And who among us can say that something super important from a decade ago holds the same level of importance for them today?

Well, I can. Which is why I felt so conflicted when I made the decision to cover a yellow ribbon tattoo on my wrist. A ribbon that I have had for nearly fifteen years and got in celebration of my little brother being declared cancer-free.

Josh was 17-years-old when he was first diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that forms in the soft tissues. Luckily his cancer was stage one when it was discovered, but the toll that the surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation took on his body and his life was devastating.

After several long months of treatment and recovery, Josh was declared to be out of the woods and healthy, and to celebrate, he wanted to get some new ink. In my role as an older sister I took him to a parlor on St. Mark’s Place, and while there I decided to get the yellow sarcoma cancer ribbon tattooed on the inside of my wrist. It just felt like the right moment for an impulsive act of solidarity and support, and the ribbon gave me a tangible connection to my brother and what had just transpired in our lives.

It took about twenty minutes. The guy even gave me a deal.

Now, many years later, I can say that while done with good intentions, the tattoo is really damn ugly. Obviously, it was rushed. The ink is blurry and thick and the shading is worse. The lines aren’t even straight.

But it isn’t the sloppy design that led me to want a cover up; it was the conversation. Highly visible on my arm, hardly a week has gone by without someone asking me about the tattoo, a side effect I did not fully think through that day in the parlor. And although Josh’s story is ultimately a happy one, it is tough to explain the circumstances to someone while their eyes well up with tears in the middle of a work meeting.

So, I decided it was time to move forward.

I am far from alone on my journey to changing my mind about a tattoo, and so there are a number of ways to approach the process. Lasers are a popular choice, as are slight alterations. (Lest we as a society ever forget Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever” tattoo transformation into “Wino Forever,” which was pure gold.)

But I did find myself in the more unique position of not exactly wanting to have a tattoo removed or changed, just sort of, hidden. The idea of fully erasing something that still held meaning seemed awful, and changing it slightly didn’t really seem like an option. So, I decided to go with door number three, the choice not always embraced by tattoo parlors; to have it covered with a brand new design. It was in this way that I could keep the ribbon, while still giving my wrist skin a fresh start.

The design I wanted was the outline of a woman with her face half obscured by flowers. It felt like a powerful image, something feminine and beautiful and colorful. I wanted it to be the opposite of the ribbon underneath. I had my dad draw it for me, which gave it another layer of meaning and allowed me to add yet another family member to my collection.

However, the quest for the perfect person to do a cover up is not easy. Some tattoo artists and parlors refuse to do them at all, understandably preferring to work with a blank canvas. But I searched around and finally found someone I loved at an all-women’s parlor in Brooklyn. I sent her my father’s design and she kicked it up a notch and I went in for the appointment.

Even that very day, minutes before we started the four-hour process, both the tattoo artist and I expressed our respective fears. She was excited by the design and the challenge of covering the ribbon, but admitted she could not fully guarantee the results. I was still debating the act of covering the tattoo at all; be it superstition or guilt or general nervousness. But after a little back and forth she turned to me and with genuine determination said, “Let’s go for it, I will try my best.”

And in the spirit of a new phase, I was in.

At first, I didn’t look. It was easier not to look, and my feelings were still so conflicted, even as the needle did its work. But after about an hour I caught a glimpse of my arm and a wave of relief passed over me. There it was, my father’s design, delicate and beautifully layered over this dark but important memento from a sad time and place in my family’s life. By the end of the evening, everyone in the shop was floored. The tattoo was beautiful. It was the best outcome I could have ever asked for.

Now, just over two months after the process, the ribbon has started showing through ever so slightly. It makes sense; the lines are so dark and thick, and the new ones on top are so careful and thin, they never stood a chance at covering it all completely. At first, it was a little jarring – this epic battle playing out on my skin. But then I kind of resigned myself to the idea that both images could and maybe should coexist.

The other day my amazing tattoo artist offered to go over the design some more, fill in some spots and see where we net out. And while I will probably take her up on it, part of me knows the ribbon will always be obvious, at least to me. After all, I have had it as a part of me for such a long time. And there is a certain beauty in that, even if that beauty is showcased through a bad tattoo finding it’s new place alongside a good one.

Related: With This Inner Lip Tattoo, Peace Does Endure

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