Getting a tattoo had been on Winnie Allen’s bucket list for some time, but the time just never seemed right — until this week.
The 52-year-old Bangor-area resident visited the artists at Diversified Ink for a very special and personal work of body art.
“There was nothing really motivating me to do it,” Allen said on the eve of getting the tattoo in memory of her beloved Yorkshire terriers Pippy and Lilly. “They died within a month of each other not long ago. … I was thinking of what I wanted to do to remember them, and getting a tattoo kept coming up in my mind.”
Once the stereotype hallmark of motorcycle gang members or sailors on shore leave, tattoos have gone mainstream with more and more people such as Allen immortalizing special moments or passions on their skin.
“The cultural ‘place’ for tattoos has really shifted,” said Lorien Lake-Corral, associate professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta. “As more and more people are getting them, they are becoming more accepted and losing their stigma.”
Lake-Corral, who is teaching a university course in the “Sociology of Deviance” in which, among other things, students discuss tattoos, said along with the increased acceptance, the reasons behind tattoos have shifted.
“Fifty years ago, the main reason for getting tattoos was for group identification, say if you were in a biker gang or in the Navy,” she said. “But now you see people getting them for aesthetics or for telling a personal narrative.”
Jason Drake, a tattoo artist at Diversified, said he’s worked on a lot of people looking to tell their stories through body art.
“It seems older people always get something meaningful to them for a first tattoo,” Drake said. “It often has something to do with a family member, or a loved one they lost or something they are really passionate about.”
Many, Drake said, have waited decades for that chance at self-expression.
“With women especially, they tell me it’s something they’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “It’s not that they were opposed to having a tattoo, but they felt society was opposed to them. But times have changed, and now they are going for it.”
Penny McHatten of Presque Isle decided to go for it when her beloved Duke University Blue Devils won the NCAA basketball championship in 2010.
“At the time, I kind of got caught up in the frenzy with a bunch of girlfriends who were all going to Portland to get tattoos,” said McHatten, 70, who lives in Presque Isle. “I thought, ‘What a great idea,’ since I always wanted one, [and] I had told myself I’d wait until Duke won their next championship.”
McHatten ended up combining her love of Duke and her passion for bicycling with a single commemorative tattoo of a blue devil riding a pink bicycle on her calf.
Catherine Saunders, 64, got her first tattoo when she was in her mid-50s. She’s since been inked a few more times.
“I just got my last one done about a week ago,” the Ellsworth resident said. “I have several, [and] they are all small, and they are all meaningful to me.”
Saunders’ tattoo art depicts scenes from the natural world, including dolphins, butterflies and sunsets along with two angels — one on each shoulder. For Saunders, the tattoos represent hardships and obstacles — including divorce, mental health issues and death of loved ones — she faced and conquered in her life.
“For so much of my life, I felt I could never really be the person I wanted to be,” she said. “But I have become a very free spirit and not afraid to do my own thing.”
Saunders said for decades she defined herself as “wife” or “secretary” and not as a person in her own right.
“You know what? I am a good person and always becoming a better person,” she said. “That’s why I chose the butterfly for one of my tattoos, because I was becoming something new.”
It’s a familiar story for Tom Murphy, artist and owner of Tom’s Terrific Tattoos in Ellsworth, where Saunders has gotten all of her body art done.
“It used to be most of my business was people in their 20s [and] 30s getting their first tattoos,” Murphy said. “But in recent years, I’ve been seeing way more people in their 50s and 60s.”
And Murphy said most of those people are women.
“It seems to me women are more accepting of getting tattoos,” he said. “More and more they are into it and kick out their jams with tattoos.”
Murphy recalled one client who was 86-years-old when she came in for her first tattoo.
“I was a little worried because she had thin skin, but we talked it over, and she came in over two days to get two tattoos,” he said. “She ended up with two chickadees, a pine tree and a frog, [and] she healed up just fine.
“She was a fiery gal [who was] fun to work with,” he added.
Murphy said he enjoys working with older clients who he finds “less whiny” and more willing to work with him on their concepts.
“The members of this baby boomer generation grew up with tattoos being taboo,” Lake-Corral said. “That has shifted in their lifetime, [and] now they feel more free to embrace getting a tattoo to express their identity and tell their story.”
Back in Bangor, Sam Wood, owner of Forecastle Tattoo, has seen plenty of people 50 years and older coming in the past several years for their first tattoo. Wood, a graphic artist-turned-tattoo artist, said he loves bringing clients’ visions to life.
“What I do is really a delicate ballet between ink and skin,” he said. “A lot of the older clients — men and women — want to memorialize someone they lost, and that can be highly emotional, and it feels really good to be part of that process with them.”
Wood said he also enjoys hearing the stories behind older clients’ first tattoos.
“I had a mother and daughter come in for what ended up being the simplest art I have ever done,” he said. “One got two plain dots, and the other got three dots.”
He said the design depicted a longtime bond between the two women.
“When the daughter was just a toddler, she’d gently pinch her mom two times, and that meant ‘I love you,’ and the mom would gently pinch back three times, and that meant ‘I love you, too,’” Wood said. “How incredibly sweet is that?”
Drake said the oldest client he has worked on was 92-years-old.
“This was his first tattoo,” Drake said. “It was this gentleman who wanted the names of his five kids tattooed on him, [and] three of those kids had died of old age by the time he was getting it done.”
While tattoos may have at one time years ago been viewed as scary or evidence of a counterculture, Drake said they are completely mainstream these days.
“I think a lot of that has to do with people seeing so much about tattoos on these television shows about tattoo artists,” he said. “That’s really helped them become a popular and accepted form of self-expression.”
Saunders said people by and large have positive reactions to her tattoos.
“People really seem to understand it’s all about allowing myself to be who I want to be,” she said. “I tell people to live a life they enjoy and you need to live the life you want.”
McHatten said when people hear the story behind her cycling blue devil, they really like it.
“Of course, when I came home from having it done and was showing everyone, the initial reaction was, ‘Um, that’s a really big tattoo,” she said with a laugh. “I guess they were expecting I’d get this delicate little thing — yeah, that’s not me.”
Drake said he’s thrilled more people who may have put off the tattoo experience for years are now going for it.
“These folks are really cool,” he said. “They are past an age of having any hangups, they’ve lived real life experiences and are doing something they really want to do.”
For her first tattoo, Allen had settled on a design combining the names of her two beloved Yorkies — a flowing Lilly blossom with the name Pippy intertwined on her ankle and foot.
“People have said to me, ‘You realize this is permanent,’” she said with a laugh. “Of course I do, that’s why I waited until I was 52, [because] permanent isn’t as long at my age.”