I was 21 when I got my first tattoo. I had just returned from a solo trip around Israel and Europe feeling freer than I ever had, and wanted to capture that feeling in a bottle. The closest I came to achieving that was documenting it in a tattoo. I chose the biblical Hebrew translation of “Be fearless” because it was the mantra I told myself each time I navigated a city alone or struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler.
Instead of consulting any graphic designers or calligraphers, I went on Microsoft Word, chose the Times New Roman Hebrew equivalent, and enlarged the font enough so that it covered my top left ribcage. I didn’t care what the tattoo looked like – I just wanted it done. Over 12 tattoos later, my strategy remains nearly the same.
Mid-way through my most recent sleeve, plasma blood dripping down my bicep, I looked down and asked my artist, “Wait, didn’t I ask for roses?” He replied that the sample photos I had sent him were, in fact, peonies. Oh well. Peonies are equally beautiful, I said out loud.
There’s something so therapeutic in using tattoos as a way to relinquish control, and derive meaning from it once it’s on your body.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to find the perfect design, and that can ultimately make us disappointed with the end result. If, like me, you go into it with an open mind and permission for the artist to take creative liberties, you’ll be a lot more impressed than you expected. I didn’t overthink any of my tattoos, and love them as much as I did the day I got them.
However, when the honeymoon phase for your tattoo has worn off, you may find yourself starting to regret it. If you do feel this way, don’t worry. There are options.
Cover it up
If you’re not so keen on the tattoo you have, talk to your artist about a cover up. If your tattoo is small in a particularly concealed area, there’s lots of room to get creative. “Everyone wants small tattoos these days. If it would look good the size of a quarter, people want it the size of a dime,” says Jason McMillan, a tattoo artist based in Montreal.
When a tattoo is too small, you miss out on lots of opportunities to include detail and shading that enhance the look of the design. But, like McMillan says, it’s easier to add to a smaller tattoo than it is to remove from a bigger one. Cover-ups on larger tattoos aren’t that much more complicated, but it does get tricky if the shading is dark.
Add to it
According to Montreal-based tattoo artist Alex K’eh, most people who come into the shop claiming they regret their tattoos are mostly just bored of them. In that case, do what I did: find a new way for that tattoo to excite you again. Add context. Add shading. Color it in.
After about a year, I was tired of the row of hibiscus flowers on my inner forearm. So, I added my wedding bouquet to my outer forearm to create a half sleeve. A year after that, I got a tribute to my dead cat on my upper arm, completing an entire sleeve. Adding to my initial tattoo was a great way to cope with that boredom.
Find a new artist
If your artist disappointed the first time around, odds are, you won’t be happy with their rendition of a cover up. Use Instagram and Pinterest to research artists that use your preferred style. An artist known for bold hues and thick, dark lines likely won’t be able to properly execute a dainty tulip in the wind. Ask folks in your area who they’d recommend. Word of mouth and testimonials from friends can be a lot more reliable than an artist’s own highly curated feed.
Don’t remove it
If you regret that you have a tattoo altogether, try to harken back to that feeling of anticipation you experienced leading up to your appointment, or the euphoria you felt when it was fresh. That feeling in a bottle I once tried to capture. Realize that your tattoo is something you desperately wanted at a certain moment in time, and honor that. Human beings are flawed, and it’s okay for your skin to reflect that. “It’s not bold because of the subject, it’s bold because you chose to get one in the first place,” says McMillan.
Tattoo removal should be an absolute last resort, as it can be more costly and physically painful than the tattoo itself. “The best part about a tattoo is that it’s there forever. That’s what makes it different than anything else. It’s going to be there until the day you die, and then after that, until your fucking skin deteriorates,” he says.
There’s always next time
There are actionable steps you can take to ensure you don’t regret your next tattoo. First, don’t try to take complete charge of the tattooing process, from the design to the line work to the composition and placement. “Take their professional advice. Otherwise, you’re working against the person who’s supposed to be making you a good tattoo,” says McMillan. “People don’t know much about tattoos. Being a skilled tattooer is a profession just like any other trade. You wouldn’t tell your mechanic or doctor how to do their job.”
And look, while regret is undoubtedly an uncomfortable emotion to sit with, it’s an essential part of the human experience, helping improve your decision-making capabilities outside the tattoo parlor as well. And, if you once loved your tattoo and now hate it, who knows? You might just come around and develop a soft spot for it once again.