Inked | Why I got my first tattoo at age 56

Midlife Tattoo

It’s not like I always wanted one. In my late teens and early twenties, the age when most Americans get their first one, my perception of tattoos was different. Dark blacks and greens, inky blues and reds, and mostly repeatable stencils of eagles, snakes, and skulls were the images that came to mind. Or maybe tiny roses, Chinese characters, and tramp stamps for the women. I guess I thought people who had tattoos just wanted the attention, to be rebellious and unique and not care what people think. That wasn’t me.

I wrinkled my nose at the idea when my friends talked about their desire to get one – “what about in 20 or 30 years, you know, when the canvas starts to sag?!  I’d argue. When my daughter expressed her interest, I outright forbade it. “Not until your eighteen.” Oh, but how things can change – how we can change!

I began to think of ink sometime around my 50th birthday. Tattoos were becoming more mainstream for sure – nearly one in four people (over the age of 18) have at least one, including both of my now adult children and many of my friends and colleagues. But I wasn’t looking to hop onto a trend. Usually, when something gets popular, I head in the opposite direction; like I wouldn’t buy a book with the red “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker on it because I didn’t want to be just one of the herd (but that’s a story for another day).

I started thinking about a tattoo at the same time I began thinking about creating a new version of myself – a braver and more creative version.

Actually, it isn’t so much a new creation as it is a revealing of who’s been there all along. It’s clear to me now that my midlife reinvention is about peeling away protective layers and washing off the heap of other people’s shit and my insecurities that I had let build up over the years. This newfound awareness and the work that has gone into it deserved a permanent, personal, and visible memento.

This skin art was going to be very personal for me, so I gave the design a lot of thought – five or six years of worth. I knew what I wanted the piece to say, but it took a long time for me to gain the confidence to convey my story so boldly. 

I wanted the artwork to summarize my beliefs, to remind me to work harder, and to slow down and enjoy nature. I wanted it to allay my fears, inspire me, and keep me grounded. Practically speaking, I wanted to be able to see it, but I didn’t want it to be the first thing that other people saw. Oh, and it had to be pretty. Thank heaven for Pinterest! (Check out my Tattoo board.)

The design I chose and the lovely and talented Anna LeBlanc helped me create, packs a lot of story into a small space above my right ankle. The surface meaning is straightforward – a four-leaf clover is symbolic of good fortune, mine has three leaves because I believe in making my own luck. The flower realizes everything on my wish list, even if that is only apparent to me.  And, serendipitously, the red clover flower happens to be the state flower of Vermont, my adopted home.

On our appointment day, my tattoo buddy was my daughter Jen, who may have been more excited than me. She prepped me with lots of advice and a little bit of alcohol, cautioning me that it would hurt like a bee sting on top of a sunburn and that’s, um, about right. At a few points during the one-hour long session, I understood how people who undergo surgery without anesthesia might feel the scalpel blade. 

I breathed through the pain. I leaned into it, even. I knew it would hurt, but big moments are supposed to be felt.

Maybe that’s why people keep going back for more? Of all the people who have tattoos, only 30% have just one. Perhaps they are memorializing a big life moment, or maybe they are creating one. I think it was both for me. I wanted to literally ink the deal I am making with myself in midlife – to be braver, to stand out, and to care a lot less about what people think. And I also set out to create a lasting (and pretty) reminder to breathe through life’s bee stings and make my own luck.

Pivotal Points

The only regret I have about this tattoo is that I haven’t always had it – a visible touchstone of who I am and all that I can be.

Published by Catherine H Palmer

I used to help big companies tell their stories, now it's time to tell my own. I blog about midlife reinvention and making a new life in rural Vermont. Follow me, I have no idea where I'm going.

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