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Mature Ink: Tattoos After 50

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I first noticed it with my 57-year-old sister, Ellen. After retiring from her job as a hospital executive, she began visiting the tattoo studio with regularity, her pale skin becoming increasingly adorned, tropical flowers blooming on her shoulders. I began to wonder: Why this sudden drive to decorate her body while most people are hiding theirs? And is it just her?

We’ve all seen the increase in tattooing among the younger set (what self-respecting 20-something doesn’t have one at the base of her spine?), but it seems this trend is not restricted by age.

In an analysis of his clientele over the last few months, “Bald Bill” Henshaw, the owner of Yankee Tattoo in Burlington, Vermont, found that 13% were over the age of 50, and more than half of them women. Even he was shocked at this. “Twenty, even fifteen years ago it was less than 1%.”

It isn’t limited to his shop. Tattoo artists across the country say they’ve noticed the trend. As Mizuz Inkaholik of Texas Body Art said, “It's not just for grandkids anymore.”

Anthropologist Margo DeMello, author of Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, speculates that it has to do with the reaching of new stages. “Middle class women in particular use tattoos to express their changing identities and senses of self, and both men and women use tattoos now to mark important milestones in their lives – going back to school, getting a divorce, etc.”

Historically (in our culture), it has been more acceptable for men to get tattooed, whatever their age, but now more and more women are finding their way to the studio. “Women are leaders in being free and adventurous in their older age…we have had quite a few customers with hot flashes,” artist Tanja Nixx quips from her shop in San Francisco.

Like my sister, the youth of the 1960s are now entering their 60s and “older people” aren’t what they used to be. Lyle Tuttle, a well-known tattoo artist, says these aging baby-boomers “are people who think young. Old people used to be fuddy-duddies; it’s changing.”

Bald Bill recently worked on an 86-year-old woman who wanted a tattoo before she died. Her daughter got permission from the doctor, checked her out of the nursing home, and took her to Yankee Tattoo. When Bill asked why she hadn’t done it earlier, she replied, “Honey, Southern ladies didn’t get tattoos in my day.”

As the needles buzzed over her shoulder, Ellen explained that for her, tattoos at this stage of life are about not caring what other people think; they’re just for you.

Susan B. agrees. She is turning 65 and is getting her first – an angel on her shoulder. When I asked her why she wanted a tattoo, she said, “It’s another way of expressing myself in an artistic and individual manner.” When I pressed her with, “Yes, but why now?” she responded with a sly smile, “Why not?” Indeed.

Photos of Ellen & Bald Bill taken at Yankee Tattoo in Burlington, Vermont

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About Ann Hagman Cardinal

  • RJ

    what self-respecting 20-something doesn’t have one at the base of her spine?

    Actually, these tattoos are generally referred to as “tramp stamps,” “slag tags,” the “dirty girl tattoo,” and the “universal symbol for slatternliness.” (Okay, I made the last one up. But you get the point.) 😉

  • Ann Cardinal

    I know RJ, but the weird thing is, they’re still getting them! But it seems the base of the neck is gaining in popularity.

  • RJ


    I agree. And I see the neck tats all the time now…and you can’t even really conceal them unless you have long hair or wear a turtleneck!

    Oh, well…to each his/her own, I guess… :-/

  • DE

    I just got my first tattoo (and probably my last) yesterday – I’m 49. I’ve wanted it for years – a memorial to an infant son we had. It is on my ankle and can and will be covered by pants. Plus I’ve researched makeup for it if there should be a time I don’t want to show it. I believe to each their own…and I think that some people like to carry what’s important to them at all times…

  • I got my first in October 2012, and I turned 50 a few months before. I never really thought about getting one until I started thinking what to tell my boys (now 19 and almost 21) if they wanted one. After soul searching, not only did I not mind, but I actually found what I wanted for me….. it’s a plain, signed Picasso line drawing of a dachshund, “Lump.” It’s too long to go into here, but getting this tattoo has been so liberating and amazing, I’m already planning 8 paw prints to go with our “core” group of dachshunds that we’ve had for several years — nothing specific, just a plain representative piece. I adore the tat on my left forearm and look at it all the time! I can’t wait to get more because now I “get it.” 🙂

  • Ann Cardinal

    I love it, Vicki! The tattoo AND the fact that it is a dachshund! I had two in my youth. LOVE those dogs.

    Congratulations! They are totally addictive. I’m up to…7 now I think…:)