When Good Tattoos Go Bad: A Guide to Poorly-Aging Ink

Getting a new tattoo is a major investment: Even if it’s just a small piece, we know how much time, effort, and emotion go into choosing an artist, creating a design, and–of course–actually getting inked. Whether your new tattoo is deeply meaningful or something you got just for fun, you want it to age beautifully.

Mikey Vigilante tattooing a client's back in Long Beach, CA.

We’re all familiar with “tattoo fails” like misspelled words and hideous portrait pieces. There’s not much we can say for these ugly tattoos if a person didn’t do their research beforehand.

But what about when you walk out of the tattoo studio with something gorgeous only to have it look not so hot after it’s healed? What about when good tattoos go bad?

If your tattoo has turned on you, keep reading to find out what might have gone wrong.

Not All Inks Are Created Equal

Because there is no quality control for tattoo ink, it’s possible to get tattooed with inferior pigments. Even in a professional shop that is 100% hygienic, you might cross paths with an artist using cheap ink to save a few bucks. (If you’re getting tatted by someone out of their garage, you can read all about why that’s a bad idea here.)

Poor quality ink can cause severe allergic reactions. Excessive itching, scabbing, and swelling can cause a tattoo that looked great in the studio to heal poorly.

If you don’t experience a reaction, it’s still possible for inferior ink to mess up your final product when it comes to how your tattoo will age. Cheap ink is more likely to fall out or to fade. This is particularly true of especially vibrant colors, which can quickly lose their luster–but even black can fade to a watery grey if the ink itself is not good quality.

At Paper Crane, we use only the highest quality tattoo ink, so you can breathe easy.

Skin Type Impacts How Your Ink Will Age

Because your skin is our canvas, it’s an important factor to consider when thinking about your long-term tattoo needs. Everything from the skin tone to the size of your pores can impact the tattooing process, which in turn impacts the final product.

At Paper Crane, our artists have tattooed a variety of skin types. We can advise you with confidence on what shades and styles will look good for years to come by taking into account the unique nuances of your skin.

We’d like to note that although reactions to ink are rare, it’s important to be upfront with your artist if you have any skin conditions, allergies, or immune disorders that might impact your body’s reaction to the introduction of tattoo ink. The more we know about your skin, the better we can do our job.

Style and Composition

You’ve probably heard the expression “bold will hold” in the tattoo industry. This refers to the time-honored belief that a design with bold outlines will typically age well. Consider the Traditional American pieces you see on the hands of weathered sailors: If done right in the first place, the bold lines and colors of these tattoos can hold up for decades with minimal retouching, even in the face of the elements.

But if you’re not fan of Traditional American style, is your tattoo doomed to age poorly in a short span of time? There is a lot of back-and-forth on this topic within the industry, especially in light of the wild popularity of watercolor tattoos. Some artists implement illustrative techniques that allow for some bold lines to help hold the tattoo in place over time; others add black shading and fine lines to color tattoos for the same reason. You’ll find some artists who refuse to do watercolor at all, just as you’ll find many who will take an outline-free approach.

At Paper Crane, we as a studio support the unique visions of our clients and artists. If you want a color tattoo that’s totally devoid of black outlines, we’ll be honest with you about the possibility that it might not age well–and if you’re concerned about that, we’ll work with you to find a creative solution that still captures your vision.

Composition is another major factor when it comes to a tattoo’s longevity, which is why we take our design process so seriously. A microtattoo with a ton of detail might look incredible when you first get it done–but ultimately, any tattoo that is too detailed for its size or that lacks clean lines will begin to look muddy as it ages. You might be better served with a larger piece if detail is important–or if it’s your goal to stay small, a simpler design will be your best bet. We use both hand-drawn approaches and iPads to ensure that your custom piece is composed in such a way that it will look great long after you leave our studio.

Aftercare and Beyond

A tattoo can only be as good as your aftercare routine. Even the most beautiful work of art can be destroyed if you don’t treat it like an open wound that requires special care.

It’s not a bad idea to get your aftercare products in order before your session to ensure that you have everything on hand. An antibacterial soap that is perfume-free is a must. We suggest Ora’s Amazing Herbal Tattoo Salve as our go-to aftercare lotion–and we carry it in our studio for your convenience!

Jars of Ora's Amazing Herbal Tattoo Salve on the wooden counter of Paper Crane Studio in Long Beach, CA, part of our aftercare routine to help your tattoo age beautifully.

Before you leave the shop, be sure that you are 100% clear on your artist’s recommended instructions–and be sure to actually follow them! (You can find our general guidelines here if your memory is fuzzy.)

Proper aftercare during the two weeks following your session is critical–but if you want your tattoo to continue to look great, it’s equally important to care for it on a daily basis. Use SPF lotion if you’re going to expose it to the sun–or better yet, keep it covered if possible. On a regular basis, you should moisturize your tattoo to keep the ink looking fresh.

Give Your Tattoo Time

Did you get your tattoo within the last couple of months? Is it looking dull or just not as crisp as you’d like? Do you find yourself staring longingly at photos from the day you got it done, wishing it could be so vibrant and clean?

Don’t panic! It’s entirely possible that your skin is still recovering. The tattoo process is traumatic, and not everyone heals at the same rate. Even different areas of your body can heal differently, especially depending on your typical attire, daily routine, etc.

It’s amazing what a little love and care can do for a tattoo that is technically past the two-week healing window. Try applying a quality lotion like Ora’s Tattoo Salve throughout the day to see a major difference in a short amount of time. You might consider upping your water intake as well, as proper hydration can do wonders for your skin!

If time has gone by and you’re still concerned, we suggest reaching out to your artist about the possibility of a touch-up. Remember that a professional will be able to tell if you’ve picked at your tattoo or neglected to care for it, so be honest about your experience for best results.

Full sleeve in Irezumi style, full color, chrysanthemum, waves, and koi, by Owen Juarez of Paper Crane Studio in Long Beach, CA.

At Paper Crane, we take the long view with our tattoos. From the selection of our inks and aftercare products to the composition and tattooing of your piece, we want you to leave our studio with a tattoo you’ll love for a lifetime. So if you’re worried about how your tattoo is going to turn out, know that you are in good hands with us–and know that we’re here to walk you through every step of the process.