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Late-Blooming Body Art
Six years ago, on her 50th birthday, Geri Marsanico finally got what she had always wanted -- a tattoo.
"I realized that when you're 50, I can do whatever I want," said Marsanico, a registered nurse from Smithtown who marked her half-century birthday with a small flower tattooed on her ankle. "I work and have always been very predictable, and I guess it was liberating and fun, and I surprised my family when I got home."
As planned, her daughter, then 21, also got a tattoo that day, going under the needle before her mother, who needed some time to drum up courage for the etching.
"She didn't have to wait until she was 50," said Marsanico, who's now thinking about getting a butterfly tattoo on the top of her foot.
No longer just the edgy domain of Hell's Angels motorcyclists, drunken sailors and hipster members of Generation X, tattoos are increasingly attracting a new demographic -- baby boomers. For the first time in their lives, many AARP-eligible folks are putting their arms, legs, chests and backs under the artist's needle to express not only their joys but also their sorrows.
Like their younger counterparts, seniors are donning tattoos to project a cool image, express their passion for a person, place or pastime, celebrate a milestone event or mourn the death of a beloved friend or family member.
"People grieve and celebrate in different ways," said Marion Somers, a Brooklyn-based elder care expert, known professionally as Doctor Marion.
While many boomers regard their tattoos as highly personal statements about themselves and what's important to them, they also are willing to show the world their flesh-engraved designs. In the warm-weather months, they happily don tank tops and shorts, and say they often get a kick out of the responses they generate from strangers -- both young and old.
"A tattoo says I am proud of my body and relevant," said Peter Kanaris, a Smithtown psychologist with a specialty in geriatrics and the coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association. "We rarely show something off that we are not proud of."
Janice Tholl is among boomers who came to body art later in life and enjoys showing off her two tattoos. When she was 50, the Farmingville resident got her first tattoo -- a lily bearing the names of her four children on the side of her calf. ("It's a way for me to show my love for them," she said.) And when Tholl turned 53, she got her second etching -- a rendering of her favorite type of amphibian, a red-eye tree frog, on her right upper arm. "I want people to see them because they are beautiful," said Tholl, 56.
While she is flattered when young people stop to ask where she got her tattoos, Tholl said she is impervious to the occasional negative looks she receives -- usually from older people -- "because of my age."
"I am very secure in the way I look," she said.
Nevertheless, Tholl, who is slated to become a registered nurse in May, covers up her tattoos around patients. "I still have to be professional, and I realize that," she said.
A rebellious quality
Epidermal etchings have shed their lowbrow, fringe-of-society image; a survey conducted in 2006 by the Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds, 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds and 10 percent of 41- to 64-year-olds have at least one tattoo. Yet, they retain enough of a rebellious quality for some tattooed boomers to regard them as outward expressions of their inner, free spirit.
"Years ago, people were worried about what their families would think. Now, they say, 'I don't care what they think. I'll get what I want,' said Sailor Bill Johnson, a vice president of the National Tattoo Association and a tattoo artist in Orlando, Fla.
Jose Rodriguez, a tattoo artist at Tattoo Lou's in St. James, said he has worked on more than a half-dozen boomers in the past six months, including two on a recent Saturday.
"Some of them say that they've gotten past the discrimination part of [tattoos], and since they're not getting any younger, they just want to go for it," Rodriquez said.
In recent years, Willie Averson, co-owner of the three-store Skin Deep Inc., which has locations in Baldwin, Levittown and Uniondale, has noticed more older women than older men getting tattoos. Some of his older female customers have told him their husbands' opposition to permanent etchings stopped them from getting tattooed earlier in their lives.
"Now that they're going through a divorce or their husbands have passed away, nothing is stopping them," said Averson. Among his customers, a 75-year-old woman waited until her husband died to get a butterfly on her shoulder.
According to experts, tattoos' downscale image isn't the only thing that has historically aroused family opposition to them. The anti-tattoo sentiment also is rooted in the Book of Leviticus, which notes: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am the Lord!"
Because of that quote, many Jews have long believed that they would be barred from burial in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo. But that's not true, according to Rabbi Alan Lucas, who serves as the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn and whose paper on the Jewish view of tattooing more than a decade ago was approved by Conservative Judaism's Rabbinic Assembly.
In his reply to a question about proper Jewish practice, Rabbi Lucas wrote that although Judaism prohibits tattoos, "there is no basis for restricting burial to Jews who violate this prohibition or even limiting their participating in synagogue ritual. The fact that someone may have violated the laws of [keeping kosher] at some point in his or her life or violated the laws of [the Sabbath] would not merit such sanctions; the prohibition against tattooing is certainly no worse. It is only because of the permanent nature of the tattoo that the transgression is still visible."
But tattooing is not without other consequences. While legitimate tattoo parlors are monitored by municipal health authorities, the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month released a health and safety advisory that warned unsterilized tattoo needles can transmit bacterial infections, HIV and hepatitis B and C.
In addition, complications -- such as swelling or burning -- at the tattoo site can result from magnetic resonance imaging. While allergies to the ink can also endanger a tattoo wearer, less well known are other risks posed by the inks -- which will be the subject of an FDA study.
For his part, Rodriguez, the tattoo artist, said older people with diabetes or other ailments should consult a physician before getting a tattoo, since it can result in excessive bleeding -- which also can prevent the ink from staying in place.
In addition, the sun can wreak havoc on a tattoo, making it vulnerable to infections. "The sun will cook a tattoo, so get a tattoo in the winter months so that it can heal and won't fade," said Rodriguez. "If you're in the sun a lot, put on sun block."
But young or old, once people get their first tattoo, they're apt to want another, sometimes even regretting their decision to go with a small design the first time around, tattoo artists said.
For the most part, boomers getting their first tattoo are generally steering away from demonic designs and full body tattoos, opting instead to brand their bodies with graphics that strike an innocent chord -- ribbon-strewn hearts, flowers, shamrocks, butterflies and the names of family members or pets, both dead and alive.
Some are selecting Chinese characters or Hebrew words that are linked to the study of Kabballah or "evoke a new stage of life -- like courage, peacefulness or something that makes you feel as though you've taken hold of your identity. There's also something about foreignness that makes people feel exotic, a little daring," said Kinney Zalesne, the co-author, with Mark Penn, of "Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes," which includes a chapter entitled "Uptown Tattoos."
Depending on the tattoo shop, prices generally start between $40 and $80 for a one-inch Chinese symbol or a butterfly but can exceed $2,000 for an entire back, according to experts.
Two years ago, Rego Park residents Pete Irigoyen and his wife, Pat, got their first tattoos to celebrate Pat's 50th birthday.
Pete, the chief lab technician for a college chemistry department, opted for interlocking P's to symbolize their names, while Pat, who works for a real estate management firm, got a red rose carved above her heart.
Referring to her first tattoo as her "little midlife crisis," Pat has since gotten a dragon inscribed on her leg, three forget-me-not flowers on her shoulder -- to represent her husband and two children -- and a samurai sword on her spine.
"My husband and kids are very into martial arts, so the samurai sword was in honor of them," she said.
For his part, Pete has since embellished the interlocking P's with a dragonhead. He also has gotten tattoos of his family's crest and his name in Japanese.
What appeals to Pete most about tattoos are their irreverent image, noting that they are "kind of cool, bad boy, sexy."
Meanwhile, Gladys Bernstein, 87, never envisioned getting a tattoo. Now, the Coram grandmother is seriously thinking about a second one.
For Bernstein, the tattoo she proudly wears on her chest -- and which is visible when she wears V-neck tops -- bears a double-heart and the names of her husband, Mel, who died at age 83 in 2003, and her granddaughter, Shana, who died two years ago at the age of 19 of viral encephalitis.
"People are surprised that an 87-year-old women -- and a Jewish woman -- has a tattoo," said Bernstein. "When my doctor saw it recently, he said, 'That's not real,' and I said, 'It certainly is.' I like to display it, because I want everyone to remember Shana."
Ensuring her presence
Bernstein is not the only family member memorializing her flesh and blood on her skin. Bernstein, her daughter, Jane Kay, 53, and son-in-law, Randy Kay, 54, as well as their son, Jared, 24, a dental student, jointly decided to get tattoos to ensure Shana's lasting presence in the world she left behind.
Although they had wanted to get their tattoos at the same time, their schedules and the parlor's available time slots didn't allow them to do so.
Randy Kay, a dentist, wears his tribute -- a heart with a ribbon bearing Shana's name -- on his left shoulder. "As a runner, I wear tank tops, and if it shows, that's fine, but I didn't do it to show it off but for her name to be permanently attached to me, and psychologically, it makes me feel as though she's always close to me, a part of me," said the Commack resident.
His wife, Jane, wears their daughter's signature -- copied from Shana's driver's license -- on her wrist for all to see. Jane's tattoo, which features Shana's first name and a heart -- all in the teen's favorite color, red -- has touched Bernstein to the point where she would like to duplicate Shana's signature on her own body. The signature tattoo has moved total strangers to inquire about it.
"Some people take my wrist and kiss it," said Jane Kay, a social worker. "Strangers' eyes fill up with tears, and when I meet someone for the first time, I will talk about Shana, and I'll ask them if they want to see my tattoo. My mission in life is to safeguard her memory."
To that end, the Kays have also established the Shana Kay Memorial Foundation Inc., which provides scholarships in their daughter's memory at every school she attended -- from the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center's day care program to the University of Wisconsin, her alma mater.
In addition, the foundation funded the creation of a bronze bench outside the Commack public library that features a little girl wearing a red T-shirt and reading a book titled "The Life of Shana Kay."
"Getting a tattoo is not something I would have chosen to do if there had not been a tragedy in our lives," Jane Kay said. "You do whatever you can to help you in your grief."
Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.
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