Calgary tattoo shop covers up 'worst of the worst' body art in Facebook contest

Steve Peace has seen some bad tattoos, ones with sad stories and weird intentions.

As the owner of Calgary's Immaculate Concept Tattoo, he ran a contest to rid the world of at least a few terrible ink jobs. People posted pictures on Facebook and others voted on which was the worst.

Peace chose the top five, along with a couple others that had stories that touched him.

"They are the worst of the worst," he told the Calgary Eyeopener. "When someone enters a contest and you win over 60, 80 people, you know you got a pretty bad tattoo."

Some that were pitched were just plain bad. He covered up Amy Rothery's huge red angular piece on her side.

"It was supposed to be a 'tribal' piece but it was just a blob," Rothery said. "It was a bad choice. I trusted somebody I shouldn't have, and it didn't look like the stencil."

More confident

By the time she won the contest, the tattoo had faded but that red was stubborn. Now she sports a tough red haired woman wearing a leather jacket.

"I noticed quite a difference, too, in my confidence level," Rothery said. "Like, it's not completed yet but I went to the beach and I was not uncomfortable in a bathing suit, where before it was different."

Peace has been doing cover-ups for a while now. Two years ago, he ran the first pro bono cover-up contest. It helped fill some slow time and winners became repeat customers, so it wasn't bad for business.

Often people come in looking to be rid of what he calls pun tattoos: bees on the knees or a jar of jam on a toe. Several pitches in the contest were of racist words and symbols, and poor homemade tattoos.

Lower back tattoos look dated, he said, and black armbands are considered to be out of style — even actress Pamela Anderson had hers removed by laser.

"Butterflies, they'll stand the test of time," Peace said. "I mean, I have four unicorns tattooed on me. That was the '80s, right? I think I have one left. I've had the rest covered."

Luckily, he said, tattoos from a few decades ago were smaller and less intricate than modern large pieces, like sleeves and chest pieces. A lower back tattoo can be covered up by a full half-back piece.

Most people cry after seeing the result, he said. Some of their stories stick with him.

One pro bono client had been a victim of sex trafficking from age 13 to 18. The tattoo showed the name of the person who controlled her at that time, Peace said.

"At 13 to 18, you don't really have a choice, and when you're a victim of that, you don't have a choice in anything," he said.

In this contest, one winner donated her free cover-up to a man who regretted having the racist phrase, "white power," tattooed across his back.

Her own tattoo says, "survivor," above a host of colourful scars on her stomach. But the artist had been inexperienced, and instead of empowering her after beating Stage 4 cancer and seven tumours, the piece made her self-conscious.

A large piece he did covered up bad scaring from a botched laser removal gone so badly, the woman delayed getting married.

Her arm was rough and bumpy, and looked worse than the bad water and fish she had tattooed originally. 

"It was pretty brutal looking, so to have that in your wedding photos is just something that she didn't want," Peace said.

He did a bold, large design of two flowers that disguised the texture.

Each appointment takes six to seven hours, and some require touch-ups later. Others take longer.

The best strategy, of course, is to avoid the problem entirely and choose a tattoo you know you can live with — or at least easily cover up.

"For portraits, you should always get family members, children, and maybe even cut it off before wives and husbands," Peace said with a chuckle. "That's only a 50 per cent chance that's going to last."

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With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener.