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THE NATION

Tattoo you -- and Dad, and Grandma too

You just can't shock the family anymore. Body art is going mainstream.

December 03, 2006|Meg McSherry Breslin | Chicago Tribune

LAKE STATION, IND. — Families are flooding into a tattoo studio here on a crisp fall day. Mothers and teenage daughters. Dads and young sons. Granddaughters and grandmothers.

Pearl Scott, a 72-year-old grandmother in white tennis shoes, is standing at the front desk scanning her next design. She waits for a touch-up on the dove at her neckline and wants a new tattoo to match her daughter-in-law's ankle flowers.

Scott started this process a few years ago, after her husband of 42 years died. She said she had always wanted one, but her sweetie was "old-fashioned" and wouldn't go for it.

"He always said, 'You can't have a tattoo. Over my dead body!' " Scott said. "So here I am."

The tattoo studio has come a long way from the days when bikers and military men dominated the scene. A study published this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24% of adults ages 18 to 50 have a tattoo. A 2003 Harris poll reported that 36% of 25- to 29-year-olds have body art.

Studies of tattoos among teens are tougher to find, but a quick glance around many high schools tells the story. Plenty of teens love body art, and their parents aren't threatening to kick them out of the house. Instead, they're welcoming it.

Take Kaelyn Marcus, who's down the hall from Scott at the bustling Personal Art tattoo studio in Lake Station, Ind. She just turned 17 and is getting her first tattoo. The design -- a four-leaf clover on the ankle -- is a replica of her mom's, grandmother's and two aunts'. It is in honor of Kaelyn's grandfather, who died six years ago. Kaelyn's mom, Lorna Marcus, is all for it.

"I just think tattoos are pretty," her mom says, sitting beside a nervous Kaelyn just before the tattoo needle fires up. "I'm fine with it."

Myrna Armstrong, a professor at the School of Nursing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is a national researcher on tattooing. She has studied its rise over nearly two decades.

Her first report, published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship in 1990, explored the growing number of career women getting tattoos. At the time, she thought of the women as pioneers. Now, nothing about the exploding industry surprises her.

In two studies of adolescents in the 1990s, she found 8% to 10% of teens had a tattoo. One reported getting his first tattoo at age 8.

"Our teenagers today -- really anyone over 11 years old -- can tell you all about tattoos and body piercing. They know where they can get them, or they have friends who will self-inflict them, or they even know how to do it themselves," Armstrong said. "Today, it's just a mainstream activity."

A handful of states prohibit anyone younger than 18 from getting a tattoo. Most states have age restrictions but still allow tattoos with the written permission of a parent.

One real indicator of the popularity of tattoos now is the atmosphere at tattoo conventions, says Bob Baxter, editor in chief of the magazine Skin & Ink.

Baxter, who has been covering the tattoo business for more than a decade, says conventions are full of young mothers -- a rare sight even five years ago. At a recent convention in Calgary, Canada, Baxter was surprised by the crowd hovering around Kat Von D, a 24-year-old female tattoo artist and a star of TLC's "Miami Ink."

"When I walked down the sidewalk years ago, mothers used to cross to the other side with their children," said Baxter, who's covered in body art. "Now, you've got them lined up to see Kat Von D. It's really a turnaround."

Tattoo fans look at their inks as the perfect way to express themselves in an impersonal world. And for many, getting a tattoo is a deeply symbolic, emotional act.

Tom Webel, a 22-year-old in the Army, got his first tattoo at 18. While on leave from active duty in Iraq, he showed up at Electric Art Tattoo in Fox Lake, Ill. He wanted tattoos of the last names of three guys in his company, all of whom died in the war.

Sharon Hurdlow, 64, started getting inked at Sacred Chao tattoo studio in Valparaiso, Ind., in the midst of breast cancer treatment two years ago.

"I just said, 'I have to go get that tattoo,' " she said. "I have to express myself in this way. Life is too short."

She now has 18 tattoos, many of them symbols of growth and renewal -- a red cardinal, a rose, a bumblebee by a sunflower.

The variety of clients is downright heartwarming for Jeanne Fritch, owner of Personal Art, the Indiana studio that's a favorite of Scott, the grandmother.

A mother's group called recently asking to rent Fritch's studio for a play date. The group plans to bring children ranging from 18 months to 6 for temporary tattoos.

Still, some people remain shocked by body art -- which can be part of the fun. Scott enjoyed her doctor's surprise as he examined her before a recent hip replacement.

"He was like, 'What do you call this, Grandma?' And he was laughing," Scott said. "But I've got to tell you, it makes me feel younger."

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