Making their mark with body art

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Barbara Ruben

Once considered the domain of bikers and sailors on shore-leave sprees, tattoos have gone positively mainstream.

And not just among the younger crowd. A 2008 Harris poll reported that about 20 percent of adults between the ages of 40 and 64 now have one or more tattoos.

Why? People are just becoming more comfortable and curious about body art, say tattoo artists and researchers alike.

"Tattooing gives people the opportunity to express their identity," said Myrna L. Armstrong, professor and regional dean of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Armstrong has conducted numerous studies on body art, including tattooing, body piercing and branding. "It's a way for them to feel special and unique."

A means of expression

Sandy Parsons, 60, estimates that tattoos cover about two-thirds of her body. She also has a nose piercing and several piercings in each ear. "It's a show of individuality, a way to stand out," she said.

She and her husband Charley opened the Great Southern Tattoo parlor in 1979 in College Park, Md. They later opened a second location in Alexandria, Va., where Sandy continues to work. Their daughter works at the College Park shop.

While Parsons said she hasn't seen an increase in older people getting tattoos, she does have a number of clients over 50.

"People hit a certain point where there were all these things they wanted to do when they were younger, but [they] didn't have the nerve to do. Now they just say ‘forget it' and do it. The movie The Bucket List really pushed that idea forward," she said.

Does she see a difference between her older and younger clients? "I think the main difference would be [older customers] tend to put a lot more thought into their first tattoo. They're not as impulsive," Parsons said.

Coco Simon fits that description. She got her first tattoo in 2008, but had thought about getting inked for 17 years.

She's not quite sure what led her to finally visit Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio in Glen Burnie, Md., but she all of a sudden said to herself, "We're not taking a summer vacation, so this is the time. I'm not getting any younger."

Simon, who is 65 and lives in Silver Spring, has had her whole back tattooed with scrolls, swirls, arabesques and other French baroque decorative elements. Her shoulders have epaulets tattooed on them. She said her husband, who has no tattoos himself, "loves them."

"My only concern as I got older was to be careful about where I put them," she said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't put them on any place that would get wrinkles."

Simon said she was thrilled by the work of Mick Michieli-Beasley (more commonly known as "Ms. Mick") who, with her husband Tom Beasley, co-owns Dragon Moon Tattoo.

Mick, 51, got her first tattoo when she was 23 and keeps adding to the art that now covers most of her body. "My tattoos all have to do with the things I love — babies, flowers and fish," she said.

"In the ‘80s when I got my first tattoo, a heavily tattooed woman was rare. Now, people want to touch me!"

An ancient art

A tattoo is created by inserting ink into the skin's layers to permanently add color for decorative or other reasons. The earliest records of tattoos can be traced to ancient Egypt, Polynesia and Japan, when tattoos indicated social status, tribal identity and sexual allure.

The word tattoo is thought to have two major derivations — from the Polynesian word "ta," which means "striking," and from the Tahitian word "tatau," which means "marking."

Throughout history, tattoos have served as rites of passage, symbols of status and rank, expressions of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, marks of fertility, pledges of love, talismen for good fortune and more — including as marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts.

The popularity of tattooing has surged in recent years, especially with the appearance of such cable television shows as "Miami Ink," "LA Ink," and "Inked."

"With so many entertainers and sports figures having tattoos, Jane and Joe Public are much more comfortable with having one too," said Darren Brass, a tattoo artist who was featured in "Miami Ink," one of the first tattoo reality shows.

The men and women getting tattoos are now from every walk of life, Brass added. And "if they had a good experience with their first one, chances are they're thinking about their next one."

According to Brass, men tend to get larger tattoos, while women think of tattoos as mementos. "Once they might have put a charm on a bracelet," he said. "Now they get a tattoo."

Falls Church resident Linda, who asked that her last name not be used, thinks of her tattoo as a symbol of a new beginning. After a 22-year marriage, her husband had an affair and asked for a divorce.

She spent a year mourning the loss of her marriage until she finally came to feel she was ready to move on. "I wanted something permanent to take with me into a new phase of my life.

"The old Linda might not have chosen something as radical as getting a tattoo, but it just felt right at the time," she said. She had a small bird taking flight tattooed on her shoulder.

Did it hurt? "Hell, yes," she answered. "But it was nothing like the pain I was feeling after my husband left."

When asked the same question, Simon played down the pain factor, describing it as feeling like a sunburn.

People have various responses to the sensation during tattooing because everyone's pain threshold is different, according to Parsons.

Like father, like daughter

Back in 1984, Curt Harpold decided to get a mermaid with a long spiraling tail tattooed on his arm. The mermaid, designed by a well-known science fiction illustrator, symbolized his love of sailing and work as a scuba diving instructor.

"Mermaids were a natural thing for me, sort of a totem if you will," said Harpold, now 52 and living in Rockville, Md.

But he found at the time that "tattoos were pretty much underground." Harpold even had a hard time finding a tattoo parlor, which were then illegal in New York City and some other areas.

He checked out one in Washington, D.C., and was disturbed to find "it was just swishing used needles around in some soapy water," to clean them for the next client.

After further searching, he selected Great Southern Tattoo, which not only had a friendly staff but an autoclave to sterilize the needles.

Fast forward to 2006, when Harpold got an unexpected second tattoo. Diagnosed with testicular cancer, his radiation oncologist tattooed a grid of dots on his body to ensure he was lined up in exactly the same position for radiation each day.

When his daughter, now 26, found out about his illness, she decided to get her own mermaid tattoo to honor her father. In it, the mermaid's shirt resembles a scuba diver flag, and her father's own initials are woven into the mermaid's hair.

"I was dumbstruck, but it's beautiful and I'm proud of her," he said. "I shudder to think how big it would have been had I not survived."

While his daughter was getting her new tattoo, Harpold realized how faded his own mermaid had become. He went back to Great Southern and they re-inked it for free.

A make-up alternative

While many customers choose to be tattooed for religious or sentimental reasons, a number of women — older women in particular — have turned to the technique for cosmetic tattooing, defined as permanent make-up to enhance the eyebrows, eyelids and lips.

 Myrna Armstrong, who with fellow researchers studied the cosmetic tattooing experiences of older women (and who has had cosmetically tattooed eyeliner applied herself), has found that benefits include saving make-up time and money and achieving personal goals of retaining a youthful appearance.

If you do decide to get a tattoo — whether artistic or cosmetic — follow these guidelines provided by the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery:

Do:

  • Choose a facility carefully: Make sure the establishment is reputable and licensed to perform these procedures.
  • Keep things simple: A small tattoo, or one with two or three colors, is the easiest to remove as well as conceal.
  • Choose an appropriate location:  Think carefully about where and how large it should be. A good tip is to place it in an area that can be covered by clothing traditionally worn in the work place.

Don't:

  • Let an infection go: If you suspect any problems, or experience considerable redness or soreness, see your doctor immediately — it may signal an infection.

Carol Sorgen contributed to this article.