It started with a crane tattoo on my right leg. Cranes were one of my sister’s favorite birds, and when she died unexpectedly, I needed to honor her memory with something more permanent than an urn filled with ashes.
At 55, I was the oldest person in the tattoo shop that day, surrounded by millennials getting full sleeves inked or piercings for their noses, eyebrows and lips. However, the moment I walked through the door, I felt right at home. The people there didn’t look at me as a middle-aged grandmother going through an identity crisis ― they saw me as a woman who appreciated tattoos. What they didn’t know was that I had secretly wanted one for years.
Like many boomers, I grew up in a time and culture that frowned upon tattoos. It didn’t help that I was also raised in a staunch Christian family that believed only criminals and deviants got inked. My parents were unaccepting of anything (or anyone) out of the ordinary, so I often felt constrained by their high expectations and narrow-mindedness. As badly as I wanted a tattoo, I knew that if I dared to stray from what they considered the norm, I’d be swiftly criticized and suffocated by their palpable disappointment.
It wasn’t until I met a woman in her early 70s who had just gotten her first tattoo ― a butterfly on her breast ― that my perspective changed. It never occurred to me that older people, especially women, could do this. I thought tattoos were just for the young. Of course, I’d heard horror stories about the pain of getting inked, regrets about permanent mistakes made by sloppy artists, and warnings of tattoos shifting on older, sagging skin. But the woman I met told me her tattoo experience was nearly painless, and that it gave her a sense of empowerment. She was invigorated by defying our culture’s ageist attitudes and smashing the stigmas associated with tattoos.
My husband wasn’t too thrilled when I mentioned I wanted to get inked to honor my deceased sister. He didn’t understand the appeal of being permanently marked. Still, he respected that it was my body, my choice, and he even accompanied me to the tattoo shop.
I was nervous when the needle first touched my skin, but surprisingly, I liked the sting of it as the artist traced the outline of the crane on my leg. Once it was done, I knew I wanted more.
There was something addictive about having my own narrative permanently inked into my body. It was a new form of self-expression that gave me a sense of uniqueness and daring I’d been missing since I’d hit my 50s.
Although I loved and was proud of my new tattoo, I was careful to conceal it whenever I was around my parents and older, judgmental siblings. I wasn’t ready to deal with their negativity and criticism, so it was easier to hide my beautiful crane under a pair of jeans. I knew my family viewed tattoos as self-destructive behavior, but this didn’t stop my craving for more. Within the year, I had three more inked on my arms, all of them representative of important moments in my life. But I still covered them when I was around the family.
The cover-ups came off after my parents passed away. I saw the shock and disapproval in my siblings’ eyes when my tattoos were revealed, but their opinions no longer mattered. I’d spent my entire life trying to please my family, so when that pressure was finally lifted, I felt as free and light as the flock of birds tattooed on my forearm.
Although some stigmas still exist about tattoos (especially for women and older people), those perceptions are changing. Our culture has become more accepting of tattoos, viewing the people who have them as trendy, adventurous, brave and free-spirited. My tats mean all of these things and more. I see my body as a blank page, and the images inked into my skin are an artistic expression of who I am. Each one shares a personal story of struggle, courage or love. Many are tributes to those who have passed on but made a difference in my life. The tattoos are like photos of my feelings and the special memories that I hold dear.
Responses to my tattoos have been mostly positive. Still, some people find it strange that a woman my age enjoys getting inked. They question my reasons and say they would never permanently mark the body that God gave them. I can respect their opinion without feeling the need to defend my own, because these tattoos have boosted my self-esteem and helped me love my body again ― something I haven’t felt since I was young.
Tattoos have also been a way to heal from trauma and grief. When my beloved dog died, I had her name and paw print inked on my arm so I could carry her memory with me forever. This opened the door to conversations with strangers who were also dog lovers, because my loss resonated with them. Their compassion and support were an unexpected source of comfort during my grieving process.
My other tattoos (nine, so far, on my arms and legs) are made up of meaningful quotes, animals and symbols. The possibilities are endless for getting inked, and I have a bucket list of tattoos I’d like to have. This includes the names of my three grandkids, my husband’s initials, paw prints of my other dogs, a colorful tiki, more birds in flight, and a very detailed tattoo of an eagle copied from a sketch my sister drew before her death. She was an artist, and drawing birds of prey was her specialty. The eagle will be inked on my calf, large enough to take up the entire space. Although I don’t have plans for a full sleeve, I like that there’s still plenty of empty canvas on my body for more art. And I’m sure there will be many more milestones to commemorate in the years ahead.
When people comment on my tattoos now, they usually say how cool they are and admire my courage to move beyond the confining barriers of ageism. The biggest question is always “Will you get more?” ― and my answer is always the same. No matter how old I am, I’ll never stop getting tattoos.
Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of “Who Stole My Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane” and the voice behind the midlife blog Menopausal Mother. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Independent, USA Today/Reviewed, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, AARP, Woman’s Day, Country Living, House Beautiful and elsewhere. You can find her at MarciaKesterDoyle.com.