Then there is the matter of wrinkles.
“People say, ‘Well, what happens when you get old and fat?’ ” said Dorrie Bright, a 52-year-old physics teacher from Baltimore who plans to get a “sleeve” composed of turn-of-the-century botanical illustrations covering her entire arm. “Well, I’ll be old and fat with a pretty thing on my arm.”
In terms of image quality, it can actually be better to wait until later years, said Myrna Armstrong, professor emerita at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, who studies tattoos in American culture. If you’ve already got saggy skin, you don’t have to worry about the tattoo sagging, she said, adding that “as you grow older, a tattoo that you got in your 20s, the lines are going to thicken, and black will turn to blue. If you get it later, the less likely that is to happen.”
As for the designs themselves, those requested by older clients tend to be well thought out. People older than 50 don’t usually get drunk and wake up with a surprise tattoo.
Dave Forties, 65, a Dragon Moon client, spent years planning his. 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. He’s glad he waited. As a young man, he said, he probably would have gotten typical military-style designs such as airborne wings or an Army emblem rather than the fanciful, colorful tableaux he has now.
Extensive, intricate designs such as Forties’s can cost thousands of dollars and take several sessions to complete — another factor that makes them more doable for older people with savings.
But not everyone is thrilled by Forties’s display. “People say, ‘Are you having serious midlife-crisis issues or mental health problems?’ ” he said. Once, at the supermarket, a cashier his age commented to his wife that she didn’t look like the kind of woman who would be married to a man with tattoos. “My wife said, ‘He didn’t have them when we got married; he got them in the last six years or so,’ and the woman looked at me and said, ‘Shame on you.’ ”
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.”
For some, a tatted-up spouse can inspire an urge to ink. “There are certainly points in my life where I didn’t understand it at all and thought I would never get a tattoo,” Bright said. But two years ago, she married Dan Whitson, 55, a custom woodworker with several tattoos, and earlier this year, she got her first one: a nautical star on her wrist to commemorate their cat. (Whitson got a matching one.)
Now, as she designs her botanical-themed sleeve, she said, “I think about it a lot. . . . I’m sort of an obsessive researcher, and I weigh things out really carefully. I imagine myself in all kinds of situations, and I look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, so I’m at the dinner party, and what’s that going to look like?’ ”
Others do it only for themselves and their closest companions. For her 50th birthday last year, Judy Rupp, a legal administrator and self-described Bethesda soccer mom, got two hearts and three stars below her bikini line. ”It represented the importance of my husband and my three girls,” she said.
Submitting to the needle can sound daunting, but by 50, people have generally experienced worse pain.
“Childbirth,” said Nash, who has two daughters. “And this knee replacement,” she said, pointing at a long red scar.
Mike Brewer, a 57-year-old construction worker who was in the next room touching up a design on his arm, agreed, saying the discomfort was nothing compared to the 28 surgeries he’s had on his back, knee and other parts.
“I think when you’re older, you deal with it better,” he said. “When you’re younger, everything hurts.”
After a couple of hours, Nash’s tattoo was done. She stood up and, a little nervously, held up a mirror.
“That’s pretty,” she said reverently. “My mother would like it. It’s prettier than I thought.”
Then she grinned. “Some mortician will get a smile on his face someday when a 100-year-old woman shows up with a tattoo.”