Tattoo aftercare instructions are specific to each studio, and every tattooed person has adopted their own care process, usually based on the instructions received after their very first tattoo. They all, however, include the same basic directions: keep it covered, keep it clean, keep it moisturized, keep it out of the sun and water, and keep it from being rubbed against.

The length of time you will be told to keep it covered varies between two to twenty-four hours. I personally only keep it covered for the two hours, though sometimes, I will keep it covered overnight. Once you’ve released your swollen body part from its wrappings, you should wash the tattoo site with pure soap and hot water and pat it dry with a clean, lint-free towel. If I’m not in a hurry, I like to just let it air-dry. All shops will tell you to not soak the tattoo in pools or hot tubs or baths of any kind, and to keep it out of the sun, because the sun will fade the ink very quickly. Also, as with any wound, don’t rub against it, don’t pick at the scabs, and don’t use a loofah on it in the shower.

Faded TattooAnd keep it moisturized, although the preferred moisturizer differs greatly between shops and tattoo enthusiasts alike. I’ve been recommended shop-specific tattoo ointments, which are usually overpriced, common drugstore topical ointments, such as Aquaphor, and fragrance-free lotions like Lubriderm or Aveeno. I use Aquaphor because it doesn’t dry out and soak into the skin immediately, but it’s not oily either. Some of the shop-specific ointments work really well to keep the tattoo greased up and protected, but they stain my sheets and clothes. The moisturizing should be kept to a minimum, however, which I learned the hard way after too much moisturizer heavily faded my tattoo. Because I was so afraid of my scabs sticking to each other with an accidentally bended arm, I kept my ditch overly covered and greased, which I later learned might be the reason the ink bled so much. So keep your new tattoo moist, but let it breathe as well.

The first couple of nights with a new tattoo are rough. Your sheets will be covered in excess ink and blood and ointment, and unless you keep your tattoo covered overnight, which some shops recommend, you might stick to the sheets as well. By the third day, your tattoo will start crusting over, and at this point, you need to be conscientious about keeping the tattoo site thoroughly and continuously moisturized. As with any wound, the tattooed spot will get itchy as it’s healing. Under no circumstances should you scratch it. I find that slapping the area helps take away from the itchiness, but even that should not be done, as you may loosen the scabs prematurely. Scabbing is common, but you don’t want it to flake off too soon, or the tattoo may develop raised scar-tissue, such as keloids. I picked the scab off of a star tattoo that I have since covered up, but because it is a raised scar, you can still see, and feel, the star through the new tattoo. I actually didn’t mind the raised star, but it does take away from the leopard print. Don’t panic when the crust starts falling off. Although it looks like it’s highly saturated in ink, you’re not losing color. Your tattoo sits below several layers of skin and won’t go away anytime soon. If your tattoo does fade too much initially because it’s in a highly mobile spot or because the ink didn’t set deeply enough, your tattoo shop should offer free touch-ups.

The outward portion of your tattoo should heal in about two weeks, but the healing process of the layers of skin beneath it will continue over the next couple of months, and any touch ups or fixes have to wait until then or the new ink will scar over very badly. Do not try to speed up the process by going to a different shop and lying to them about when the tattoo was done. It will only result in a poor quality tattoo and a bigger disappointment for you. I’m actually guilty of many a tattoo fix or cover-up. I’ve even gone through the laser removal process for a couple of them. When a tattoo is initially completed, I tend to give it a quick once over, blindly thinking everything is perfect until I take the bandage off and the perfectionist in me kicks in. I’ve made myself sick obsessing over the smallest detail—but then I give it some time, and I usually stop seeing the “mistakes.” If I don’t, I figure out how I can improve the tattoo to my satisfaction. So hopefully you love every bit of your tattoo, but if you think something is wrong, give yourself time to live with the tattoo and see what you think in a few weeks. If after that, you are still unhappy, you have a few options.

by Dawn Grace in her own studio

The first option is finding a way to fix the tattoo, by adding more ink to certain areas to improve it, or building on the initial design to either distract from the mistake or to make it bigger and better. I wanted a tattoo of ball of yarn with circular needles, because I knit with such needles, which are two sticks joined by a flexible wire. The wire wasn’t drawn accurately to how the actual wire moves, however, and non-knitters were not understanding what the wire was for, so I had the tattoo modified. The needles were lengthened and given heads to make for traditional straight knitting needles, and the loops of the wire became a banner with the words “twisted stitches,” which was a style of knitting that I often used and was also the name of the trivia team started by me and my knitting circle. I also had some filigree added to add interest and fill in the empty space, and now I love it. As awkward as it can be to return to your artist and ask them to fix their work, it is best to give your original artist the chance to make you happy, especially because some artists will not touch another artist’s work, and it may be difficult to find someone willing to fix the tattoo for you.

by Dawn Grace

Another option is to get the tattoo fully covered up with a completely different, and usually much larger, piece. More research needs to be done to find the right artist to do such work. Some artists will only work with a clean slate, but there are many artists who actually specialize in cover-ups and will brilliantly hide the old piece to look as though nothing was ever there. Sometimes, a tattoo is too large and too dark to cover-up, and the artist will recommend first lightening it up with a laser removal process. Your body naturally absorbs and gets rid of anything foreign in your body over time. Tattoo ink particles are too big for this to happen quickly, so the laser breaks up the ink particles to make them smaller and easier for the body to absorb. Depending on the color and age of the tattoo, the laser process can take a few sessions to lighten the tattoo enough to be covered, and still several more sessions would be required to remove the tattoo completely.

by Zach Stuka at Deluxe Tattoo

Laser removal is an effective option for getting rid of unwanted tattoos, but should be done only as a last resort. The pain and the expense of getting a tattoo removed is immense and if you are able to find a way to cover it up, do it. I had initially intended to completely remove the two tattoos I hated, but after five sessions at about $250 each, gagging on the stench of my own burning flesh, and feeling like my limbs were soaked in a vat of boiling lava, I easily changed my mind. I had lightened the tattoos enough to get them covered up and so I did. The heart with a key running through it on my right wrist became leopard print, also incorporating a line of irregular stars I impulsively got in Las Vegas. The dragonfly, which I loved, surrounded by awful filigree, which I hated, became a beautiful butterfly surrounded by cherry blossoms.

by Dawn Grace

Not everyone believes in cover-ups and removals because tattoos should be a permanent decision and done with no regrets. But I am a pretty big advocate of fixing impulsive mistakes and being happy with every piece of ink on your body. I don’t cover up tattoos simply because I no longer like what they represent, I modify the ones that did not turn out the way I initially wanted. I’ve also covered a tattoo that I got in an area where I didn’t foresee wanting a bigger and better piece later. But because I actually liked that tattoo, a purple snake curling around my belly button, and it was my very first, my brilliant artist incorporated its outline into the paisley, so you can still see the outline of its body. Interestingly enough, because I did and still do like the initial ideas behind the pieces I have covered up, I have since gotten them done better in different places, or plan to in the near future.

These days, although I would still get a tattoo fixed here and there, and a smaller tattoo might get incorporated into a larger one, I would not get any new ones removed or covered up. I am not as impulsive about getting tattoos as I used to be, and I do a lot more research before going into a shop, so I am confident that I will only be putting high-quality tattoos that I really want on my body. Plus, with as many as I have, and as many more as I want, I am distracted by new ink enough that I don’t obsess as much over the current or the old ink. There’s too much to look forward to in the future to waste any time worrying about the past!