WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago, a good girl didn’t do this. A good girl didn’t walk into an establishment plastered with images of dragons and flames, hike her shirt up over one shoulder and let her body be injected with ink. Especially not if she was, like Darlene Nash, a 57-year-old grandmother.
But America has changed since then, and so has Nash. “When I was young, I worried about what other people thought, but as I got older I didn’t care,” said the Catonsville, Md., retiree. “I think with maturity comes a certain level of confidence.”
She flashed a smile, then braced herself as the tattoo machine began etching a 4-by-6-inch pattern across her right shoulder blade. On her other shoulder blade was Nash’s first tattoo from seven years ago – a rose to commemorate a sister who died young and a heart for her first granddaughter. This month, she was adding a bouquet of forget-me-nots for her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, a ribbon for friends who died of cancer and an additional heart marking the birth of another granddaughter.
Tattoos – once the domain of sailors, Aborigines and gang members, and now a staple for younger Americans of all ethnicities and professions – are trickling up to the older set. While most who get them still tend to be young – a 2010 Pew study found that 38 percent of millennials and 32 percent of Gen Xers have them – their elders are increasingly joining the party. Fifteen percent of baby boomers have tattoos, and 6 percent of the Silent Generation does.
“They hit the ‘screw it’ stage – ‘I’m going to do what I want, and screw the rest of the world,’ ” said Sandy Parsons, 63, co-owner of Great Southern Tattoo in Alexandria, Va., and College Park, Md., where business from people older than 50 has gone up by 30 percent in the past 20 years. Two or three times a week, someone older than 50 comes in for a first tattoo.
“There’s a stronger breed of women in their 50s and 60s than there’s ever been,” Parsons said. “If the spouse doesn’t like it, that’s too bad.”
That was the attitude of Georgia Cortina, 77, grandmother of 24, who got her first tattoo seven years ago to honor a son who had died.
“I did it, I like it, I’d do it again,” she said. “My husband doesn’t like them, but after you’re married 60 years, who cares? When it comes to my body, I’m the boss.”
At the 35-year-old Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio in Glen Burnie, Md., where Cortina got a second tattoo this month for her other son, and where Nash was getting her shoulder done, a third of the clients are older than 50. They often want to commemorate a milestone, such as the death of a spouse, the birth of a grandchild, a marriage or a divorce, said Michieli “Mick” Beasley, 54, who owns the studio with her husband, Tom.
“I had a woman – she was 87,” Beasley recalled. “She looked like your grandma, or your great-grandma, like a little old lady, but she was a daredevil. She had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She said she promised her mother she wouldn’t get a tattoo till [her mother] was dead, and now she was doing it.”
For older clients, certain considerations must be made. Skin becomes less elastic as it ages, more thin and papery. It bruises more easily. Artists set their needles to a shallower depth and work more slowly for older skin, Beasley said.
Dave Forties, 65, a Dragon Moon client, spent years planning his tattoo. During his 28 years in the Army, he said, getting new tattoos was frowned upon.
But after retiring in the late 1990s, he started thinking about it.
“I knew I was going to get a big piece; I wasn’t going to do a spot piece,” he said. “I collect 100-year-old blue-and-white Japanese porcelain. I was looking at some of the designs.”
He began by covering one calf with ocean waves and Japanese maple leaves, and he is in the process of getting dragons across his chest and arms. Extensive, intricate designs such as Forties’ can cost thousands of dollars.
But not everyone is thrilled by Forties’ display. “People say, ‘Are you having serious midlife-crisis issues or mental health problems?’” he said.
Jane, his wife of 42 years, is diplomatic. “Tattoos are not my thing, but each to their own taste,” she said, adding, “He has very good taste.”