Tattoos are increasingly popular among older adults

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:38 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 13, 2009
More and more adults are stepping into Columbia’s tattoo parlors. Janice Brothers, 48, is finalizing a memorial tattoo on her arm. She got her first piece of body art 25 years ago when tattoos were not as widely accepted. Adya Crawford, a tattoo artist at Living Canvas Tattoo, has seen the average age of her clientele increase over the past 10 years.

COLUMBIA — Greg Maire had a 5 percent chance of living. His doctor told him he would be dead in six months. He lost half his left lung, the top part of his stomach and his entire esophagus.

Maire, 44, was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer in 2006. After 35 rounds of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries, Maire won the battle.

“To heck with cancer,” he says.

In August 2007, about six months after his major surgery, Maire got his first tattoo to symbolize his win against the disease. It’s a small blue ribbon, the symbol for esophageal cancer, positioned on his upper right arm, with the words “f--- cancer” inscribed inside a harmonica beneath the ribbon.

Maire is one of a growing number of older people getting tattoos for the first time.

“We cater to a broader group of clients,” says Dean Jones, co-owner of downtown's Living Canvas Tattoo. “The demographic is getting wider and wider. It used to be 18 to 25, now it’s 18 to 80.”

Maire, who lives in Jefferson City, is a blues musician who, despite losing his esophagus, still sings and plays the harmonica. He currently has two tattoos, both from Living Canvas, and plans to get more.

“My tattoos tell a story,” he says. "It’s an everyday reminder that you can lead a normal lifestyle and beat these things."

Body art has shed the stereotype of being something only for burly bikers and salty-mouthed sailors. A 2003 Harris Interactive poll found that 16 percent of adults in the United States have a tattoo; 7 percent of those with tattoos are age 65 and older. Of adults living in the Midwest, 14 percent are the owners of at least one piece of body art.

Because of the expanding age range of his clientele, Jones doesn’t limit his advertising to the younger age groups anymore. After 20 years in the business, he has seen the view of tattoos evolve and undergo a “huge transition” from where it used to be.

Christie Hicks, 53, of Moberly, came in to the shop to get her sixth tattoo, a floral design on her right wrist. Her first tattoo was of a sun and moon design inked on her calf seven years ago.

“I used to think I’d never get a tattoo,” Hicks says.

She kept noticing them on others and one day she decided she wanted one.  

“I think they’re beautiful, and I like the art,” she says.

She also has a memorial tattoo on her right shoulder, a self–described “tramp stamp” on her lower back, a chain circling her right ankle with a cross resting on the top of her foot and a colorful design on her left foot.

The tattoo on her wrist consists of four different colored flowers to symbolize her three children and one grandchild.

“I imagine I’ll get more after this,” she says. “It’s addicting."

Recently, a group of five sisters came in to Living Canvas with their 79-year-old mother. The sisters all got tattoos, and their mom initially refused. But by the end of the day, she walked up to the artist with a book, pointed to a butterfly and asked that the design be inked on her ankle.

Scotty Lammers has been tattooing for 15 years; the last six have been as a manager at Tattoo You on Rangeline Street near Business Loop 70. He has noticed more diverse clientele and has tattooed many older people who have come in for the first time.

Often, older clients are people who have always wanted a tattoo and feel it’s now more “socially acceptable,”because of increased media coverage, Lammers says.  

Jones also says television shows that feature tattoo artists have played a big part in bringing tattoos to the forefront. He also cites what he calls the “bucket list effect,” believing older adults want to do things that have always intrigued them or that they thought they would never do.

He also sees a lot of clients who are cancer survivors and those who are supporting survivors. Many clients come in for memorial tattoos.

During the last week of August, Lammers did at least five tattoos on people over the age of 60. Three were “first timers.”

Jon Bush is a tattoo artist at 9th Street Tattoo. He describes his clientele as “eclectic” and says he has a lot of older clients, the oldest of whom was 83. She got a quilt square pattern on her back that ended up being about 8-inches across, he says.

“Her skin took up color better than a lot of the young people,” Bush says.

Maire says the reason people are getting tattoos has drastically changed over the years.

"People get them for loved ones, or they get them as something that reminds them of their childhood, something that is a part of them," he says. "It's a way of self-expression, and it's something that I'm proud of."

Maire looks forward to expanding his tattoo collection to further chronicle his experiences with cancer and his life before and after the disease.

"In my case, it's more of a way of expressing the story of my life and what I've been through and what I'll hopefully achieve," Maire says. "I've been very fortunate, and I think tattoos have become a part of my life."

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