LOWER EAST SIDE — More than a decade ago, Sarah McGovern, 35, allowed her former best friend, a budding tattoo artist at the time, to practice tattooing designs on her legs.
This summer she will spend thousands of dollars to get the three very large and very prominent tattoos — a Greek goddess, a sun and a graffiti piece — covered with completely new designs.
"I just tried to embrace having a bad tattoo, but I did feel like it took away from me. It definitely wasn't enhancing me," said McGovern, a vintage clothes seller who lives in Brooklyn.
"When I got them I was young and my friend wanted to do it, so it was free," she said. "Now I tell people 'Spend money on your tattoos — it's worth it.'"
McGovern is just one of the many New Yorkers who turn up in tattoo studios hunting for cover-ups and redesigns of drunken mistakes or bad work by inexperienced artists. Tattoo artists say they are constantly patching up the names of former lovers, repairing once-hip designs that are no longer trendy and even erasing foreign words that don't quite have the bearer's intended meaning.
"There are so many good artists out there now, when you settle for second best or even third best, people notice," said Darren Rosa, from Rising Dragon Tattoos on West 14th Street.
He said clients occasionally have to get even their cover-ups redone because they made another careless mistake with that redesign.
"They might have been in such a hurry to cover up the first time that it doesn't work out and they end up with some other nonsense," said Rosa, who is currently working on a double cover-up that went from an ex-girlfriend's name to a dark tribal design popular in the 1990s and is now being reworked into an ink-squirting octopus.
For Zoe Eisenberg, 25, it was her impulsive selection of a tattoo artist that left her with an unrecognizable squiggle on her ankle.
The sprout design she had been dreaming about for years to reflect her vegan lifestyle instantly looked bad.
"The lines were crooked and uneven, the coloring was uneven," said Eisenberg, the managing editor for the blog I Eat Grass. "It looked more like an Asian symbol than a sprout."
After six months of disappointment, Eisenberg went for a redo at Williamsburg's Gristle Tattoo, which specializes in vegan ink.
"We reworked it, added more details, color and really made the roots actually look like roots," said Brittany Bauza, 24, who touched up the sprout design.
She said she sees about three clients a week seeking either a touch-up of old and faded work or complete redesigns of mistakes.
"With Hebrew, Arabic, foreign writing there is a problem with people going to Google translator and, say they want love in a different language, they end of getting 'french fries' or something," Bauza said.
Two women once came in needing cover-ups for their matching tattoos. The Creole word they thought meant friendship actually meant water, according to Bauza.
While some artists turn up their noses at redesigns and cover-ups, others, like Michelle Myles from Daredevil on the Lower East Side, offer a saving grace for bearers of careless tattoos.
"Sometimes you can work with the image underneath. Other times you have to completely cover it," said Myles, adding that a flower or panther are great cover-up options because their shapes can be manipulated to hide the bad tattoo.
Dark ink also provides a challenge and in some cases Myles recommends clients first take on a few painful laser appointments to dull the tattoo.
She said she'll occasionally share her opinions on ink missteps.
But in the end, she said, "I try not to pass judgment on people."
Myles is working on one of McGovern's cover-ups, overlaying a weathered and mundane Greek goddess with a much more striking Grecian woman.
The intricate design with bold lines is a clear step up in both design and execution.
"Before I would look at my leg and I was like 'ah!' and now I look at them and I think 'beautiful,'" McGovern said.
"It has taken a long time to address it. Now that I have done it, I think 'Why did I wait so long?'"