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posted: 9/30/2013 6:00 AM

Tattoos making inroads with the 50-and-over crowd

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  • Dave Forties started getting tattoos after he retired from the Army in 1998. Some of his tattoos were inspired by his collection of Japanese porcelain.

    Dave Forties started getting tattoos after he retired from the Army in 1998. Some of his tattoos were inspired by his collection of Japanese porcelain.
    Washington Post photos

  • Baltimore resident Dan Whitson, 55, started getting tattoos at the age of 46.

    Baltimore resident Dan Whitson, 55, started getting tattoos at the age of 46.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Thirty years ago, a good girl didn't do this. A good girl didn't walk into an establishment plastered with images of dragons and flames, hike her shirt up over one shoulder and let her body be injected with ink. Especially not if she was, like Darlene Nash, a 57-year-old grandmother.

But America has changed since then, and so has Nash. "When I was young, I worried about what other people thought, but as I got older I didn't care," said the Catonsville, Md., retiree. "I think with maturity comes a certain level of confidence."

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 Aborigines 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 X'ers have them -- their elders are increasingly joining the party. Fifteen percent of baby boomers have tattoos, and 6 percent of the Silent Generation do.

"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."

For older clients, certain considerations must be made. Skin becomes less elastic as it ages, more thin and papery. It bruises more easily. Artists set their needles to a shallower depth and work more slowly for older skin, Michieli Beasley said.

Sun damage increases the risk of the ink "blowing out" -- leaking into places it's not supposed to go. Conditions such as diabetes can cause circulation problems in the extremities, and a person on blood thinners is in danger of bleeding more.

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' 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' 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."

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