Tattoos have become so ubiquitous that legendary tattooist Lyle Tuttle says if he were a young man today, he’d think twice about getting one. “Not being tattooed seems like the larger act of rebellion,” he says. We may think of getting “inked” as the domain of the young and the rebellious, but hordes of boomers proudly display decades-old tattoos, and plenty are undergoing the needle for the first time.
Over-50 newbies usually have a reason and tend to be small tattoos with large meanings. Recently divorced women often select symbols of rebirth (blossoming flowers, butterflies), and both sexes emblazon children’s and grandchildren's names or images that symbolize important moments of their lives.
Pros recommend that mature clients do some planning before rolling up their sleeves or dropping trou (as Cher famously did for Tuttle to ink her posterior). Most important is working with an experienced artist with a light touch, as older skin is more fragile and can bruise easily. Pick a body part that’s not susceptible to wrinkling. (Hint: Often an area that hasn’t seen a lot of sun.)
While some folks are just getting their first tattoo, plenty of others are trying to get rid of theirs. Dermatologist Amy Derick, who does about 30 (laser) removals per month, says at least 10 percent of her clientele is over 50. “Usually they're sick of the tattoos, but sometimes they want to correct typos,” says Derick. And sometimes they simply regret having immortalized a person or an event.
Dana Brunson, a tattooist in Cincinnati, is often called upon to reconstruct or recolor faded—an inevitable occurence—wrinkly tattoos for people in their late 50s or 60s, but sometimes he tries to talk the customer out of it. “Anyone can have a nice, bright tattoo,” he says, “but it’s cool to see tattoos that have a lot of history and sentiment.”
Brunson should know. His 62-year-old body is covered in tattoos. Although he has precious little space left for any more, he knows what he’s getting next: “A hinge on the back of my knee. My teacher had a hinge on the back of his elbow, and this would be a tribute to him. It’s kind of silly, but you know, you don’t always need a profound reason to get a tattoo.”
Michael Kaplan is a New York–based writer and the author of the book Tattoo World (Abrams, 2011).