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