"You're going to regret that in 50 years' time." It's one of the most common warnings to anyone pondering whether to get a tattoo in the first few decades of their life. The assumption being that a design that looks "fresh" and "vibrant" on twenty- or thirty-something flesh will look "faded" and "haggard" on the skin of an older person. But it's a lazy, ageist theory that only constrains how we present and express ourselves once we reach "a certain age". And given the traditionally masculine connotations of tattoos – stemming from their historical link to sailors, convicts and gang members – older women with ink face both ageist and sexist prejudice.
Tattoos are one of the most common forms of body modification nowadays, yet the stigma of being a woman over 50 with a tattoo still holds. More people than ever are deciding to have words and symbols permanently inked onto their skin, with a fifth of Australians now claiming to have tattoos – a figure that rises to almost one in three among young people. This means that, thankfully, the shame and potential embarrassment around tattoos among younger people is gradually falling away. For the over-50s, though, not much seems to have changed.
Whether the motivation behind our inkings is personal and deeply significant, impulsive, or simply that you think a symbol looks pretty or cool, getting tattooed and making a permanent change to our bodies on our own terms should be celebrated, whatever our age. Happily, more and more women over 50 are embracing their body art and Refinery29 was lucky enough to hear five women's personal stories.
Blue, 54, owner of The Blue Tattoo
It was 1983 and Blue was just 19 when she bit the bullet and got her first tattoo: a black heart with a dagger. It was a "tribute to being an absolute goth," she explains, and inspired by her favourite song, "Black Heart" by new wave group Marc and the Mambas.
It was inked by Bob Roberts, a legend in the industry who has been tattooing professionally since 1973, at his world-famous Spotlight Tattoo studio on Melrose Avenue in LA. "I still love my first tattoo and love the way it’s aged. It’s been 36 years of getting tattooed and I am totally covered now," she says. So much so that she only has space for small gap fillers and blast-overs – bold tattoos on top of existing, faded tattoos that grab people's attention while leaving some of the old design visible.
"I have never regretted any of them," Blue attests, proudly. "This is who I am, so I don't ever look back and it’s not something I’ve stopped to think about." While some of her designs do have specific meanings and hold personal significance, mostly, they’re striking mediums of self-expression based on however she was feeling at the time. "They are all a beautiful piece of artwork by amazing tattoo artists."
It’s often said that there’s no such thing as getting one tattoo – rather, you’re more likely getting your first of many. Ink aficionados often compare a first tattoo to a gateway drug that opens up a world of self-expression, and 57-year-old Liz has become hooked, fast. Since May, her first inking experience, she’s had 16 done and hopes for more in the future.
"I got my first tattoo on my twin girls' 18th birthday this year. They wanted us all to get one, so we did." She speaks fondly of her first tattoo: an amalgam of her children’s initials, "which just happened to spell T. W. I. N."
"I always wanted a tattoo, but hated the way I looked as I was overweight, so didn't want them while I was unhappy with my appearance," she explains. "I lost four stone and wanted to do something for myself. Getting my tattoos was just for me."
Everyone who knows Liz is shocked that she now has tattoos, and while her older friends either "don’t get it" or disapprove, her younger ones seem to like them. Her family have also been supportive but by this point, 16 tattoos in, the mood music at home is more like "enough already". Regardless, she’s open-minded and already has two more planned.
For women who reach their 50s, a decade during which many begin to feel invisible and ignored by men and younger people because of their age, a tattoo is an ideal birthday present to themselves. Marian gifted her first tattoo to herself 14 years ago to commemorate this milestone. "I got my first tattoo to celebrate being 50. It was hard to choose a design but in the end I went with a dragon." The mythical monster wasn’t intended to symbolise anything in particular, she concedes. "I just thought it looked cool despite it being a very common choice."
She’d wanted a tattoo for many years but always felt constrained by her career in law (an inking would be "frowned on" if it was spotted in the office), and negative comments from her family about tattoos, who "think it’s horrible to deface your body". After her first foray into body art with her dragon, retirement was a catalyst for more. "I have one on each thigh which represent two of my big passions in life – open-water swimming and connecting with horses," Marian explains. Both were based on photographs and done by the London-based tattoo artist Martha Smith.
The swimmer in the lake on Marian’s left thigh represents her: "I built my confidence swimming alone, often at sunset." Discovering the hobby has given her a new lease of life and made her feel more at one with nature, and she wanted a permanent reminder of the physical and mental benefits. The design on her right thigh, meanwhile, symbolises her love of horse whispering. Her gentle, quiet interactions with the animals has brought her stress levels down over the years, particularly when she was working full time. "The tattoo represents a connection I had instantly with a beautiful horse called Bree. She often resisted human approaches so I felt privileged to have her accept me."
On her wrist, Marian has a tattoo of the word "Basta", meaning "Stop" or "Enough" in Italian. It was intended to deter her from drinking too much – or at all – by being visible every time she lifted a glass or reached for a bottle. "I know how much my drinking to excess has ruined family gatherings and relationships in the past and decided that it was time to tackle the problem this year." It also keeps her focused on her triathlon training, another pastime she took up in retirement, as she hopes to qualify for next year’s European Championships in swimming and cycling. "Our culture equates having fun with being drunk and it’s hard to go out and resist the pressure to drink, but so far this tattoo has worked for me."
The reaction to her tattoos among older people has been mostly positive – a combination of intrigued and a little shocked, but mostly non-judgmental – and younger people just think it’s cool. "Tattooing is now much more accepted as a form of body art and personal statement nowadays. I've been open-water swimming for three years and people of all ages and both sexes in that community have tattoos, so I feel pretty normal as I only have four." All being well, the next inking on Marian’s agenda will be celebrating her getting to the European Championships. "I also want Martha to add a sea serpent wrapped around the outside of the lake tattoo to signify the danger I mentally overcome every time I get in unfamiliar water," she adds.
Like Marian, specialist children’s nurse Pamela is a rarity in her profession because of her tattoos. Now approaching 51, she got her first tattoo in 1990 at the age of 21. "I went along with a friend to support them getting their first tattoo but decided at the last minute to go ahead and get one myself. It was of a rose on my shoulder." But looking back, Pamela realised it was "cheap and not of very good quality," so she opted for a huge back tattoo to cover it.
"I waited two years on a sought-after tattooist’s waiting list and spent around £2,000 (approx. AUD $3600) to have a piece of art with me always." She also went on to get Che Guevara on the inside of her arm to, again, carry that sentiment with her wherever she goes. "It's my favourite tattoo because it encourages me to give my utmost to anything and everything I do."
Pamela's spur-of-the-moment decision to get inked almost three decades ago altered her life course, she explains. "I absolutely love my tattoos because they always spark conversation, good and bad. I like meeting new people and my tattoos give them a topic of conversation." Hardly any of her colleagues are tattooed, "so I stand apart from the crowd, which is always a good thing in my book."
Like Liz, Marian and Pamela, whose forearm tattoos serve as a near-constant reminder of people and sentiments close to their hearts, Marie-Anne's also has a "special meaning". In 2012, at the age of 48, she delved into the world of tattoos for the first time, opting for an entwined Star of David and Christian cross, despite never having been religious herself. "It represents my heritage: my Jewish father and Catholic mother," she explains, adding that she has no regrets.
"I loved it then and I love it now – it’s my own design and unique to me. It's not religious in any way. The symbols represent the religions, certainly, but they are also beautiful symbols in their own right and their simplicity was what drew me to design the tattoo as I did, to represent my parents and our shared heritage."
She'd wanted a tattoo since she was 18, "but either didn’t have the courage or money to get one," so it wasn't until she began researching her family's history in 2008 and made some surprising discoveries that she started thinking about it more seriously. "I became more drawn to having a tattoo but wanted one that was personal to me and this design was one that I kept coming back to. I’m thinking of getting another one, but haven't yet got a proper idea in mind."
Marie-Anne believes the cultural codes around tattoos have shifted such that it's now more acceptable for women like her to express themselves via the medium of skin. "Before, it wasn't the done thing for women to have tattoos but that has changed over the years, as women have felt the freedom in being able to express themselves more." While she's never personally experienced any stigma as an older woman with a tattoo, she trusts some people will never update their views. "If you are of the mentality that what other people do is wrong if it’s different to you, then you might never change your mind and be open-minded about anything." And who would want to be among them?
Refinery29 would like to thank Blue, Liz, Marian, Pamela and Marie-Anne for their involvement, and the all-female-run Velvet Underground Tattoo studio in east London for its help behind the scenes.