Voices: I’m a tattoo artist – this is why people get their first ink in their eighties

Dorothy France (centre), a resident at Care UK's The Burroughs in London, has fulfilled her teenage dream after getting her first tattoo of Snoopy (Andrew H Williams/Care UK/PA Wire)
Dorothy France (centre), a resident at Care UK's The Burroughs in London, has fulfilled her teenage dream after getting her first tattoo of Snoopy (Andrew H Williams/Care UK/PA Wire)

Tattoos and ageing – an endless debate none of us who are tattooed ever initiate but always find ourselves sucked into. “But what about when you’re old?” Is probably the most often asked question tattooed people – especially women and femme presenting individuals – face, along with “What if you change your mind”, and “Did it hurt?”, all of which can be answered with the always mature response – so what?

The idea that tattoos are an accessory of the twentysomething rebel aligns with the old rhetoric that youth is wasted on the young. Tattoos are an expression of self. They are depictions of our journeys, our significant moments and milestones, commemorative motifs that adorn our outer selves – why should any of that be reserved for the adolescent adventurers?

Surely, we’re past the point of tattoos as a mark of rebellion or street cred, and into a new era of acceptance and appreciation of tattoos as whatever you want them to be. Unless, apparently, you’re old? In an ageist society, we seem to be uncomfortable with our elders doing anything other than quietly fading into oblivion, so seeing anyone with a bus pass getting a tattoo still presents as taboo.

My first experience tattooing an elder was a glorious example of the joy of tattoos at any age. I was in my tattooing infancy, barely into my twenties myself, and still marvelling at the diversity of the tattoo clients that came my way. But while I was used to first-timers in my chair, this one particular customer was filled with an enthusiasm and joy that exceeded the usual mix of excitement and anxiety.

“So, how long have you been thinking of getting this done?” I asked as I placed the stencil – a small butterfly – on her shoulder.

“53 years.” She replied with a grin.

As I etched the brightly coloured butterfly on, she told me the story of how her husband, on their 50th wedding anniversary, had asked her if there was anything she felt she’d missed out on in life, or anything she wanted to do while she still could. She admitted she’d wanted a tattoo since she was 17, but she was worried what people – and he in particular – would say, so she had resisted.

He promptly planned their trip to the tattoo studio and encouraged her to choose whatever she wanted. The butterfly tattoo was a gift from him, and then the two others I did for her over the year that followed were treats to herself, and each time she told me she wished she’d done them sooner, but at least she was really living now.

She is, of course, not the only older person I’ve tattooed over the years. There is often a sense of trepidation in elder clients when they first step into the studio – that they’re doing something they shouldn’t, breaking a societal taboo. I have regular clients who are in their sixties and seventies, many of whom did not start to get tattooed until later in life.

But once they break that taboo, they embrace their newfound freedom from the social constraints and expectations that they have lived by their entire lives. And actually, isn’t that the sort of rebellion that tattoos are meant to inspire?

I’ve been tattooing for more than 20 years now (and have been getting tattooed for even longer) and as I age, so do my clients, the majority of whom are millennials and Gen-Xers. Where we were once the twentysomething rebels collecting tattoos in our wild youth, we’re now the greying, ageing grown-ups whose tattoos map out our journeys towards old age.

We’re not going to stop getting tattooed as we age, and our tattoos won’t magically disappear. We are the tattooed generation: more than a third of 30- to 55-year-olds in the UK have tattoos now, and those numbers are increasing. Tattooed elders will be a normal sight in the not-too-distant future, and maybe finally we won’t be rolling our eyes at that question any more.