Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Get a Tattoo in My 50s

By Marcia Kester Doyle
July 17, 2023

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is a series designed to celebrate all the ways you can forge your own path in midlife and beyond.

Several years ago at a party, a woman in her 70s with seafoam highlights in her gray hair introduced herself as Alice, the host's grandmother. What caught my eye wasn’t her bold hair. Just above the neckline of her T-shirt, there was the orange-and-black tip of a tattoo showing. She saw me staring and pulled down her shirt to reveal a monarch butterfly tattoo above her left breast.

"It's brand new—my first tattoo," she said with a wink. "Why should young people have all the fun?"

Right then, I started contemplating getting my own.

Although I had a hearty appreciation for tattoos, I never considered getting one before that. My parents were old-fashioned, very religious people who stereotyped inked people and questioned their social status. Although I never bought into their antiquated attitude, I avoided tattoos because I feared their judgment. But Alice made me start to think, ”Why not me?”

Alice Said Tattoos Are About Living the Life You Want

I’d begun at an early age to conform to my family’s expectations to secure approval—an unhealthy result of being raised in a family of overachievers. That was my story.

But what was Alice’s? I asked her. She told me she was a breast cancer survivor and that the monarch butterfly symbolized her journey in strength, rebirth, and endurance. Alice commemorated an important event in her life with the tattoo, even though she was older than the typical tattoo client. I admired the energy and youthfulness of her aura, and the butterfly only added to her mystique.

That conversation with Alice changed my way of thinking. She didn’t care what others thought of her tattoo or colorful hair. She was just fully embracing herself. She’d grown tired of feeling invisible, she told me. So she lived the life she wanted. For her, the tattoo was her way of thumbing her nose at societal norms and breaking the stigma of ageism.

I told Alice my story, too. I told her about my family’s buttoned-up attitudes.

“You need to stop allowing your family's opinion to dictate your self-worth,” she advised me. And I thought of my older sister. She’d been more open-minded about tattoos than my other family members, and she'd recently died. Alice suggested I get a tattoo to honor my sister, and she offered to come along with me to get mine.

I took her number and planned to call when I was ready to get inked, but I never got around to dialing. "Maybe someday," I sighed.

The Tipping Point

A year later, Alice's cancer came back, and she died.

As I mourned, I regretted not taking her up on her offer to go to the tattoo parlor. I asked myself, “Why was I so concerned about what others thought?” I’d already lost my father years ago, and all I had left was my mother and two siblings. The world wasn't going to end if I disappointed them. It was my body. It was my right to do whatever I wanted with it.

On my 56th birthday, I finally got that tattoo.

It was painful. But it was also invigorating. The rush of adrenaline that came with the first touch of the needle made me feel more alive than I had felt in a long time.

I chose a white crane to represent my sister. She loved cranes. And the crane had another special meaning, too. For me, it was a symbolic renewal. A sign of positive change.

I chose not to tell my mother. She was ill at the time, so I kept my tattoo concealed when I visited her at the hospital. That was my last act of caring what others think. She died shortly after that, and from then on, I stopped hiding the tattoo.

How Getting a Tattoo in Middle Age Changed My Life

To many people, my ink might look like just a tattoo. But for me, it’s something more. By revealing it for all to see, I undid years of static tension between myself and my siblings. I finally realize how toxic it was to care so much about what others think of me. My tattoo helped me walk away from the negativity of the past.

And in the past few years, I have celebrated that freedom with a few more tattoos.

Every time I get a new tattoo, I gain a new perspective on aging. I no longer worry about social and cultural acceptance. I embrace the beauty and wisdom of age. At 56, I chose to do something I wanted to do regardless of the perception of others.

The tattoos made me more visible in some ways, but they also increased my sense of self-worth and freed me from the negative rhetoric that had once played on an endless loop in my head. I am proud of my body artwork, each tattoo representing a renewed sense of youthfulness, transformation, and resilience.

A few months ago, as I sat in the chair for my seventh tattoo, the needle hummed as the artist inked birds soaring across my arm, their freedom etched into my skin. I smiled, knowing that Alice would be proud.

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