Tattoos: It's Never Too Late for Body Art
What to consider and where to go if you want to get inked
Tattooing is such an ancient art that some tattoo tools found in Europe are estimated to be 12,000 years old. But it’s only in the past few decades that tattooing has started to lose its stigma. It was actually illegal in Oklahoma until 2006 and banned in New York City between 1961 and 1997.
Tattoos were originally used by people who identified with certain groups or as symbols of rebellion. The art has since gradually moved to the mainstream and is now popular among people of all ages, even those who never thought they would take the plunge.
“Growing up, the only tattoos I saw were on men, and they were big and ugly, and scary,” said Stanice Patricia Myttenar, a 78-year-old retiree who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “I thought there was no way I’d ever do that to my body!”
But times and attitudes change.
Myttenar’s curiosity was piqued after her daughter got a mermaid tattoo on her thigh and then another tattoo to cover a scar on her hand, the result of a deep cut. “You wouldn’t even guess there was a scar there,” said Myttenar.
Then, as her grandchildren started getting tattoos and she learned the meaning behind each one, Myttenar began to think she might like to have one, too.
Remembrances and Regaining Control of Your Body
There are no official statistics of how old people are the first time they get a tattoo, but it’s estimated that about 54 percent of people 60 years and older have at least one.
Roni Falgout, a tattoo artist at 522 Tattoo in Lake Forest Park, Wash., has been tattooing professionally for 26 years. “I’ve watched the industry shift and change,” she said. “I would say that older women are probably one of the fastest growing demographics getting tattoos these days.”
Reasons for getting a tattoo are as varied as the tattoos themselves. For some people, as they get older they may realize that some of the rules they followed for society’s sake might be worth breaking. Myttenar’s first tattoos, which she got earlier this year, were “Granny,” since that is how she is known to everyone, and a shamrock, because she was born on St. Patrick’s Day.
Some people are looking for remembrance tattoos to commemorate a person they have lost; others to remember special times in their lives.
Falgout had a client who she had tattooed many times over the years. Sadly, he recently died by suicide. His mother knew how much Falgout meant to her son and in his honor, the mom flew from Arizona so Falgout could tattoo his name on her wrist, where everyone can see it.
“She was 65 years old and probably would never have gotten a tattoo otherwise,” Falgout said. “That was a very special thing for me.”
Another group of women who get tattoos are breast cancer survivors. Falgout said she does many mastectomy scar covers.
“These may be women who would normally not get tattoos, but they were exposed to the concept of hiding these scars with tattoos. It’s a way to empower themselves and to move past a terrible experience that they conquered. It’s an empowerment thing, where they take back their bodies," said Falgout.
Considerations When Getting a Tattoo
Skin changes as we age, so this is something artists should take into consideration when tattooing an older person. Although the success of a tattoo also depends on genetics and overall health, your skin does become thinner, Falgout explained.
“You have to be very careful not to go too deep because it’s very easy to get what they call blow-out lines, where you go just a tiny bit too deep and it gets into the fat layers below the dermis. Then the ink spreads a lot more. You’ll still see the line but it almost looks like there’s a bleed-out underneath,” said Falgout.
The best way to ensure a successful tattoo is to be as healthy as possible when you go into your session. Falgout said she can’t tattoo someone who is on blood thinners, for example, nor will she do a tattoo on skin that is broken or has a rash, blisters or any other type of injury.
People with thin skin that bruises easily may also not be good candidates.
When in doubt, it’s always best to speak with your doctor to ensure there are no reasons that you shouldn’t get one.
Finding the Right Tattoo Studio
If you’ve decided you want a tattoo, it's time to find a studio and an artist that you have confidence in. Tattoo studios are pretty regulated now, said Falgout, and an owner of any good one should be happy to show you around. Ask for a tour so you can see for yourself. Things to look for include:
- The autoclave (for sterilizing the equipment) is up-to-date for spore testing.
- Needle packages are opened in front of you.
- Inks are not reused. They should be put in little disposable cups.
- There should be barriers on everything, such as the spray bottles or wires.
Once you’re satisfied with the studio, you need to decide on the artist. Every artist has his or her own style, Falgout explained. She suggested speaking to the people at the front desk about the type of tattoo you’re thinking of and the staffer can lead you to the portfolios of the artists who best fit your ideas.
Tattoo art has evolved over the years and you can find tattoo artists who specialize in realistic floral designs, cartoon characters, sketch-like portraits and much more. It’s important that your artist understand the type of art you want on your skin.
When You Don’t Want the Tattoo Any Longer
Tattoos are permanent, but circumstances change and sometimes a tattoo that meant so much when you got it is no longer appropriate.
“One of the biggest reasons I do tattoo removal is for names or dates that are no longer significant,” said Daniel P. Friedmann, a dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas. While some people opt to get a new tattoo to cover or hide the old one, others want them removed altogether.
Tattoo removal is possible, but it takes time and commitment. Some tattoos are easier to remove than others. Using lasers, dermatologists can remove the ink over a period of several sessions. “Different colors respond to different wavelengths,” explained Friedmann.
It’s actually the pigment used in the ink that determines whether the tattoo will be easy or difficult to remove. It may be easy to treat a black pigment from one tattoo parlor but a different black pigment from another may be harder.
“The pencil shading tattoos, the ones that look like someone shaded it lightly with a pencil, those you can clear in one or two treatments,” Friedmann said. “But when you have those really, really dark blacks that look like they’ve been shaded over and over, those could take 10, 20 treatments, at least.”
Friedmann suggested that people go to dermatologists experienced in tattoo removal if they want their ink removed. Tattoo removal can be painful and places that don’t do a lot of tattoo removals may not provide adequate pain relief. “We do a lot of numbing injections because then it can be pretty painless," he said.