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.
Once the domain of sailors and Maoris and now a staple for younger Americans of all ethnicities and professions, tattoos 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 do.
“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 and College Park, 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 Mick Michieli Beasley, 54, who owns the studio with her husband, Tom.
Sometimes, a life event has freed a person to get inked.
“I had a woman, she was 87,” Michieli 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.”