Can you tatoo over a scar?

I can’t imagine why not, but I don’t know much about tatooing.

I have a huge ugly scar on my stomach. The guys at the bar last night were joking about it and decided that I should get a huge tatoo over it, so that women will not be repulsed.

I am probably not going to do this and I’m not convinced a huge tatoo would be any less repulsive, but it did make me wonder if it could be done.

I have no idea what the answer to that is, but a friend of mine was considering getting a tattoo over her pacemaker scar. She’s thinking a zipper, or big giant stiches.

I see tattoos over scars all the time. They sort of work and sort of don’t. The scar takes the tattoo ink less well than the skin beside it, so its shape and some of its color can still be recognized. However, the tattoo does obscure it partly.

When you tattoo a person, you put the ink droplets between the transparent outer layer of skin (epidermis) and the opaque lower layer (dermis). The ink droplets don’t stay there long before they are eaten by macrophages. The macrophages then stay where they were when they ate the ink. Weird, I know, but that’s how it happens. If a mac dies, it bursts, and another mac comes along and redigests the ink.

The scar may have a very thickened dermis or the dermis may be replaced by collagen. The macrophages are not distributed the same way they are in intact skin. This is why the tattoo never looks the same over a scar as over intact skin. But it stands out less than it would without ink.

I say, if you want to go for it, go for it. Work it into a pattern, like put curling leaves and flowers along it as if it were a branch, then do a motto below it, and some sort of something symbolic of your life above it. It’ll at least give you something to talk about with the girls. And you won’t be shy about revealing your sixpack…

I wouldn’t go with the surgery motif. I heard the sound of hysterical laughter over the intercom one day. Went in and my most amuseable colleague was staring down at a dead guy with an amateur tattoo on his belly of a dotted line, with motto, “Cut Here.” When she finished laughing, she did.

And along the same lines, sort of – can a scar be tattoo’d (?) with a pigment so that it will match your skin tone? So it would stand out less? I have a scar that’s a lot lighter than the surrounding skin. What’d’ya think?

The most beautiful tattoo work that I have ever seen was on a television program. A woman had lost both of her breasts to cancer. Her friend was an extraordinary tattoo artist and they went to work.

They designed what looked like, to the best of my memory, a very intricate Celtic “halter top.” It covered her in the front the way that a halter top would do and encircled the back of her neck. It was gorgeous – and I am not particularly fond of tattoos.

She said that she got many compliments on it at the beach and that it took quite a while sometimes for people to realize that she was actually going topless – and that her breasts had been removed.

When you create a tattoo, you’re creating a very thin scar. Wouldn’t that preclude macrophages entering the area? When you say “don’t stay there long” you make it sound like the ink disappears. My experience of almost 20 years of being tattooed is that the ink doesn’t disappear.

Is it your contention that macrophages constantly digest and redigest tattoo ink with little appreciable difference in the vibrancy of the tattoo? Perhaps I’m a bit simple-minded, but I don’t see how that would work. I’ve never heard your explanation before. Could you cite some hard scientific evidence for the macrophage process re: tattoo ink? I love having my ignorance fought, but you’re going to need to bring the big guns.

Discovery Channel. One of my favorite shows ever.

This page explains a bit about how macrophages work in a tattoo. Basically, the bits of ink are too big for them to digest, so once they swallow them, they’re stuck there and can’t do anything. Eating the ink doesn’t make the ink disappear - the cells themselves are essentially transparent to begin with. A big collection of macrophages just under the skin, full of ink, is basically what a tattoo is.

What’s neat is that there are studies being done involving the use of macrophage-stimulating factors in tattoo removal. Laser treatment breaks up the ink particles into smaller pieces, which macrophages can then actually get rid of completely, making the color fade. Bringing more macrophages to the area after laser treatment may speed things up, and do a better job.

Most of the macrophages hang out there, but over time, enough leave that the tatoo often fades.

Back to the OP:

  • Another option for the scar is excision and/or steroid induced atrophy. These require a physician (usually a dermatologist). Depending on the size and location, large scars can often be converted into thin lines that are less visible. Raised scars can be softened and thinned by injections without cutting.
  • There are additional options, e.g.- as laser destruction of scar collagen, but the studies are less reliable.

Interesting - thanks for the info.

This scar is both long and wide. Basically, I have only seen burn victims with scars worse than this. (Note, that isn’t a challenge nor in any way a slight on others who have larger scars.) It is about 10X5 inches. Actually, it is still healing, so I won’t be doing anything for quite a while.

Interesting. I’d never heard anything about macrophages and tattoos before.

I have a tattoo over a quarter-sized burn scar on my arm. Most people don’t notice the scar unless I point it out. The tattoo is of an animal, so I think the irregular pattern of the fur helps mask the irregular texture of the scar. It’s possible that if I had chosen a tattoo that was solid ink in that area, that the scar wuld have stood out more.

I have a similar scar, the length of my sternum from multiple heart surgeries. After the third, I started asking artists about putting a zipper over it. The first guy in Hilo told me to wait at least a year for the scar to stop growing - think stretching comic books with silly putty. During that year, I had two more surgeries, so I was glad I had waited. Another year later, and I checked with multiple shops in Hollywood. The uniform response on the Strip was that the structure of scar tissue is such that the ink will feather out into the skin much more than it does on unscarred skin, and a fine line would blur almost immediately. So this would probably work fine for a irregularly textured tattoo like Theios has, but not for an angular or rigidly detailed design. I’d be interested to see the Celtic design Zoe mentioned. I suspect that the artist carefully composed the design to include the scars, rather than running over them willy-nilly.

As for me, I compromised by putting a zipper pull on the unscarred skin at the very end of the scar - like the zipper was pulled shut. And, of course, zipped shut is the way I prefer my chest.

I agree totally, the ink doesn’t disappear. Apparently ink being in macrophages is not equal to ink disappearing.

Although I have been told that the gradual fuzziness of line which I see in 80 year olds who got their tattoos 60 years ago in the navy is that the macs do move just a teensy tiny bit every decade, so eventually the ink in them moves with them just a few millimeters.

I’m grateful to all who provided cites. Frequently something I know will be part of the forensic “working knowledge” and I won’t even know where I learned it - medical school (doubtful), residency (possibly), fellowship (likelier), meetings and lectures (more recent), colleagues (very likely)? I’d have had to go hunt for cites. Which I could have done, but I’m lazy, and grateful.

Isn’t the body a weird thing, 11811 ? Macs and everything.

Hey, just to add - I occasionally look at skin under the microscope (particularly if it has a gunshot wound through it). The macroscopic scar you can see after a big surgery is very obvious under the microscope. Big honking mass of shiny collagen occupying the dermis and spreading into the subcutaneous fat. I never see visible scar tissue associated with tattoos at all. It must be true that they cause a tiny scar, but it must be so tiny, that it doesn’t show up under light microscopy. So it’s hardly a sister under the skin to big scars. More of a distant cousin.

No, the ink doesn’t show up visibly under the microscope, either. Weird, hunh?

You have class.

I like.

Speaking just anecdotally as the recipient of several tattoos and the former roommate of a tattoo artist: some tattoos scar more than others. She (the tattoo artist) claimed that this was due to the skill of the artist, the area being tattooed and the person’s skin and scarring ability. I have three tattoos, one by a very skilled artist and on my stomach, which is almost flat, one on my ankle by a middling artist which is totally flat and one high on my chest (some t-shirt collars cover it and some don’t) done by a newbie artist which is noticably raised and very smooth. I’ve been told by doctors that I scar very easily and form keloid (sp?) scars, the raised up kind. I get deep stretch marks from even a little weight gain, and having some moles removed by a plastic surgeon (to try and reduce scarring) left huge, raised scars on me.

So I think it’s fair to say that while not all tattoos leave scar tissue behind, some certainly do.

But, uh, you can’t look at my skin under a microscope yet. I’m still using it. :wink:

How about tattooing broken blood vessels? Was talking to a guy at work who was talking about having laser surgery to lighten up a couple of broken blood vessels on his face. Someone suggested to just have them tattooed a flesh color. Would that work?