Hey, Grammy, look at my tattoo, it’s just like yours.” Out of the mouths of babes, my 4-year old granddaughter rolled up her sleeve and proudly showed me her butterfly tattoo, the removable kind, of course. But, it’s not that I got my tattoo at the age of 50 that’s the story, or that a recent contestant of the Miss American pageant, Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, sported hers during the swimsuit competition, it’s that in the 21st century, tattoos have become mainstream.
Just standing in line at the grocery store, you see tattoos of every size, shape, and color on people of every age, shape, and color, and I’m not talking about the tabloid covers here. Since 1936, the percentage of those who have a tattoo has tripled. And, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to have visible tattoos. So, when did getting tattoos go from being a brand for sailors or trollops to a fashion statement for all ages?
It seemed like when celebrities came out of the closet with their tats, it opened the door for the rest of us. I remember the bicep tattoo, with the inscription “Billy Bob,” of Angelina Jolie, accessorizing her designer gown on the red carpet. It seemed like next thing you know, celebrity stylists couldn’t wait to have their clients revealing every last butterfly, Chinese symbol, or name of a significant other. But, long before the awards’ shows were created, famous people were getting inked. In 1066, King Harold II was tattooed with his wife’s name across his heart after losing at the Battle of Hastings. The Czar Nicholas II came home from a visit to Japan with a dragon on his right arm. Not just for European royalty, American presidents have had tattoos. Our eleventh president, James Polk, may have started the whole Chinese character tattoo trend. His character translated as “eager.” Teddy Roosevelt’s family crest adorned his chest.
But, first and foremost, we must give credit to the one person who may be the most responsible for trending tattoo art, Thomas Edison. After all, if it weren’t for Mr. Edison we wouldn’t have the patented “electric pen,” the precursor to today’s modern tattoo gun. Always one to be the first to try his own inventions, Edison inked a quincunx, a geometric pattern of five dots, on his forearm.
Teresa Vail wasn’t the only contestant with a tattoo. Miss Montana also has one, a cross with an inscription on her foot. My guess is there are a lot more in the pageant; they’re just not confident as this 22-year old member of the Kansas Army National Guard. I’m also guessing her endorsement will give a boost to an already 2.3 billion dollar business. (On the flip side, it may help the 66 million dollar tattoo removal business, too.) A poll being conducted during the pageant by the New Jersey Star-Ledger has shown that an overwhelming 84% of those polled voted yes when questioned whether it was a good choice for Miss Kansas to show her tattoo instead of hiding it.
One of the more interesting clues that tattoo taboos are disappearing is the rate of the over-50 set getting inked. When I decided to get my first tattoo on my 50th birthday, it wasn’t because I was making a personal statement or asserting my independence, it was because I always wanted one and coming from an Army town, my mother always told me only “trashy” girls had tattoos. I waited until after her death to get one, a vine of violets around my wrist, and have gotten compliments from other women and heavily tattooed bikers alike. I have to confess though; I still cover it with my watch when I attend DAR meetings. But, like me the inking age is rising, with first-timers in the Baby Boomer ages (44-64) up by 15% and a 6% increase in the over-64 crowd.
My grandmother, who could be considered a Flapper in the Roaring Twenties, was shocked when my teenage mother got her ears pierced. When I was a teenager, everyone got their ears pierced, some in elementary school, but my mother forbade me from getting a tattoo. My daughter got her first tattoo at 18 and I tried to draw the line at her getting her various body parts pierced. It’s just all about what’s considered “acceptable” fashion. After all, yesterday’s pierced ears are today’s tattoos. And, who knows, maybe future Miss America Pageants will have a tattoo category.
Written By: Lisa S Nance