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Blast over tattoos
Courtesy of Sammy Ray

Blast-overs: the tattoo trend that embraces your body art regrets

A growing trend in the tattoo industry, blast-overs are cover-ups that intentionally leave the old work visible beneath the new, allowing your tattoos to grow and evolve with you

Last year, Hackney-based tattoo artist Suki Lune asked a resident artist at her studio to inscribe an abstract star shape over the top of the Kangayam cow she’d had inked onto her arm five years previously. The thick lines of Riccardo Raffin’s design plowed over the cow motif, striking across its head and body with little regard for the original tattoo. On its own, Riccardo Raffin’s design is bold and visually striking. When stamped so unapologetically on top of another tattoo, it becomes defiant, almost aggressively so.

New tattoos inked on top of old tattoos are known as blast-overs, and they’re a growing trend within the tattoo community. Whereas cover-ups seek to hide an old piece completely, blast-overs intentionally leave the old work visible beneath the new. “It’s a form of dialogue with existent designs,” Raffin says. “A symbolic act that underscores the intention to move beyond the past and embrace change.”

Over in New York, Caleb Blansett is something of a maverick in the industry, thanks to his large-scale, body-spanning pieces – and his embrace of the blast-over technique. When planning his mammoth projects, he allows the geography of his clients’ bodies to lead the way completely – even if this means that the new work goes over a tattoo they already have. “If someone asks me not to touch a tattoo, I’ll factor that into my design,” he says. “But otherwise I draw the design looking at the body, not so much the tattoos that are already there.”

While this approach is more organic, often blast-overs are a deliberate choice made by people like Lune when their existing tattoos have gone out of fashion or simply don’t reflect the aesthetic vision they have for themselves anymore. “I’d seen Riccardo do blast-over work before and felt really inspired by it,” she says. “A lot of the tattoos I have on my arm are stylistically quite different to the stuff I would get now if I were to start from scratch, so it felt like a way to make it all feel a little more aligned with the stuff that appeals to me now.”

Blansett agrees that many clients have this mindset. “Maybe they got a tattoo when they were 18,” he suggests, “and they still like it, but tattooing has changed a lot since then. So they do a blast-over. They still have the reminder of it, but they’ve integrated it into something bigger and more cohesive.”

When it comes to the blast-overs themselves, there’s a big diversity in range. “It can vary from just the ends of designs kissing each other to full-on cacophonies of ink intertwining,” says New York-based artist Sammy Ray. They’ve done tattoos that stretch the definition of blast-over to its limit by covering almost all of an existing piece but leaving just enough peeking out to serve as a memory.

“Sometimes, people don’t like a tattoo because of its association with their past, but they still see that past as being important and relevant, because of how they’ve grown from it,” explains Blansett. “So instead of getting rid of the tattoo entirely, they add another layer to it – and give a nod to the shitty thing that happened”. 

“Our memories aren’t really that good” agrees Ray, “so getting blast-overs is a way of harbouring our memories and past selves on our own terms and accepting every person we have been in the one vessel we have. 

Chinese-American artist Pang operates out of the San Francisco Bay Area. According to them, blast-overs represent an “explicit, intentional rebirth” and challenge the very idea of permanence within tattooing by “changing something that was allegedly going to stay the same forever”. 

There’s no doubt that tattooing has become more individualistic in recent years – with Instagram causing a shift in focus from tattoo collectors to the personal styles of each artist. In light of this, Ray feels that blast-overs are a good way of re-introducing cohesion at a time when people’s tattoo collections are becoming more aesthetically diverse.

“For people who want to collect pieces while also curating or collaging those works into something larger and special for their body, blast-overs are a great way to work towards something wonderful and cohesive without committing to an aesthetic or one artist’s vision,” they say. Blansett feels this way about the work on his own body, insisting that he “has one tattoo”. “I don’t want to have all of these borders between my pieces. I want everything to flow and feel a little muddy,” he explains.

But what of the artists whose work is being blasted over, many of whom never agreed to their work being recontextualised in such a confrontational way? Do they have the right to exercise ownership over the art they’ve made? As far as Blansett is concerned, “No – once the tattoo is on your skin, it’s your tattoo and you can do whatever the fuck you want with it”.

However true this may be, it doesn’t stop the old guard feeling affronted. Traditional artists are prone to thinking rigidly about tattoo styles and placements at the best of times, let alone when work they’ve made risks being scribbled over. Pang has little patience for this line of thought: “Whether you like it or not, you are tattooing a person, who’s going to age, and going to get other tattoos around, or – heaven forbid – over your work. It’s an uphill battle to start taking offense to that.”

The question of ownership is a prescient one for Pang, who sees blast-over work as a way of fighting back against an increasingly capitalist and individualistic tattoo culture. “Now there’s more emphasis on the personal styles of every given artist that a collector is tattooed by, artists are more sensitive to being copied, which problematises the flow of ideas,” they say. “But blast-overs are a maximalist way to visually bring together the disparate tattoos in a collection, taking the aesthetic attention and putting it back onto the collector.”

All tattoos necessarily change the bodies on which they’re made, but with a blast-over, change itself is the subject matter. And where cover-ups seek to disguise that change, blast-overs make it a spectacle. They put the free will of the tattooed person front and centre, and offer them a space where their bodily autonomy is paramount. Or as Caleb puts it, blast-overs are a way of telling the world that “This is my tattoo space. I am the captain now. I am doing something different, and I am doing something new, and I want you to hate it.”