Repainting the Scar

Tattooing over scar tissue can be tricky, but it can help some people—like victims of severe burns—feel comfortable in their bodies again.

Guy Aitchison / Jon Clue

Jon Clue has been tattooing since 1993, and his work features detailed textures and imaginative designs. In 2000, he teamed up with fellow tattoo artist Guy Aitchison to help a firefighter cover up a large skin graft.

I talked to Clue about the work, tattooing scar tissue, and the ways tattoo artists help people reclaim their bodies. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rose Eveleth: What’s the backstory behind this tattoo?

Jon Clue: This tattoo was done on a client with heavy skin graft from serious burn injuries during a firefighter-drill accident. He asked for some biomechanical-looking imagery similar to what he saw in the portfolios of my own work as well as the artist who I also collaborated on the project with.

Eveleth: What was the biggest challenge in doing this tattoo?

Clue: The biggest challenges were working with the extremely textured skin, it had very pronounced “peaks and valleys” which we had to follow particularly when doing the lines.

Eveleth: Can you tattoo over all scars?

Clue: I'd like to say most scars are “coverable.” I put that in quotes because when working with scar tissue it’s more about hiding the scar within texture areas of the composition more than the usual covering of an image.

Although I’ve done a few tattoos over scars, each scar is different, so I’d have to say my experience is somewhat limited. But I can say that each scar does react differently. The usual reactions are immediate swelling localized to the area tattooed over the scarred areas.

Eveleth: Does tattooing scarred skin hurt more or less than unscarred skin?

Clue: Everyone says something so different about the pain of tattoos. I’d have to tattoo only scarred skin on every different body part multiple times to give a decent answer for that, however with this client in particular he said the peaks hurt about 80 percent less than the valleys did.

Scars need to be fully healed in order to have any success tattooing over it. I assume the scarred skin reacts to the pain differently than unscarred skin because I'd imagine the nerves end up healing in different places than they were originally in, but this is just a guess.

Eveleth: Why do people ask for tattoos over scars?

Clue: I'd think people ask for tattoos over their scars so they don't have to be reminded of whatever the cause of the scar is, and to make it a bit more aesthetically pleasing to themselves and others. Some scars can leave people feeling quite a bit self-conscious about their appearance and tattooing over it can be very empowering for them. Especially in the case of this client in particular, there were many times he told me how before he was tattooed he was so embarrassed about his appearance that he wouldn’t consider being out in public without a long-sleeve shirt, and now he proudly wears sleeveless shirts.