‘Childbirth is worse’: women investing in granny tatts

The traditional gift for a 70th anniversary is platinum. But, when Sandi Smyth's birthday rolled around this year, she opted for a different long-lasting present: ink.

Encouraged by her son's mother-in-law, Andrea Phelan, last week Ms Smyth got her first ever tattoo. Well, actually, the retired nurse came away from her trip to the studio with two: a crescent moon boat to represent the many end-of-life moments she has been present for, and a staff for wisdom.

Andrea Phelan, 61, shows off her two tattoos. Getting a tattoo in your 60s and 70s is becoming more common, tattoo artists say.Credit:Louise Kennerley

"I would happily browse other people's tattoos, but I didn't think it was something for me until this year," the Jervis Bay grandmother-of-seven says, adding that it has brought her family "quite a lot of delight".

"I love a bit of adventure and this seemed like a permanent way to mark the adventures and the reflections I was having at this stage of my life."

Sandi Smyth and Andrea Phelan waiting for their tattoos.

Ms Phelan, 61, had always wanted a tattoo but could never decide what she wanted ("I thought I would get sick of it"). The Katoomba artist, who runs art programs with men on parole, ended up having her first over Christmas: the phrase "joy as an act of resistance", from the song by UK punk rock band Idles of the same name, which she heard by chance on the radio.

"I went, 'Oh my god, I would have that as a tattoo,'" she says.

However, Ms Phelan warns tattoos are "addictive": she had her second, a raven she drew herself, alongside Ms Smyth last week.

"It's a bit of symbol for me of flight and freedom; transformation. [The tattoos] are both sort of political things for me, in a way."

There has been a rise in the number of middle-aged and senior women getting tattoos over the past decade years, says Tashi Dukanovic, vice-president of the Australian Tattooists Guild.

"A lot already have small tattoos, and they want to get them covered or extended," she says, noting changing social attitudes towards tattoos mean more older women feel comfortable exploring the option.

Ms Dukanovic, who has been tattooing for 17 years, says the number of professional women she sees seeking tattooing has also "skyrocketed".

Lauren Winzer, who did Ms Smyth and Ms Phelan's tattoos, agrees. The Alexandria tattoo artist says she has women over 70 coming in "all the time".

"A lot of women are just thinking, 'Oh, what's stopping me?'" she says. "There were negative connotations before … but now there is more variety in the designs available."

Ms Dukanovic says older women are more likely to want tattoos with meaning. She does a lot of "memorial work" for women in their 50s and 60s.

"It's not for show, and not for fashion … women want pieces that have symbolism or images from their life," she says.

Kate Judd, 57, had her first tattoo done in May, during a Gold Coast holiday with a group of women she has known since high school.

"We'd been chatting, having a few wines and what not, and we just thought, 'We've been friends for this long and we'll always be friends: let's get a tattoo.'"

The group each had the word "friends" tattooed, livestreaming the process on Facebook for their (adult) children to watch. Ms Judd – whose tattoo is on her forearm next to a flower – had already been considering ink, with her family giving her a gift voucher for Christmas.

"My two friends were going to chicken out, so I quickly put the money on the table," she laughs.

She would "definitely" recommend other women her age consider getting a tatt ("it didn't really hurt … childbirth is worse") and is considering her second.

"I want to get a family tree with my children's names and my husband as the trunk, but I just haven't come up with a nice design yet."

Although tattoos might be seen as a sign of rebellion, Ms Judd, from Londonderry in Sydney's north-west, says she is much more "responsible" with her appearance now than she was when she was younger. She will only get tattoos that mean something to her.

"It has to be thought out, why you're getting it. Because you are going to get questions about it. But I don't care if [people] don't like it: that's not my problem."

Ms Phelan says she is similarly not fussed by what others might think of her tattoo.

"If I was younger I would have got a tattoo that I could have covered up. But now I want people to see them, and I want to be able to see them."

And, as for that old line that a tatt will "look terrible" when a younger person is "old and wrinkly"?

"We're going to see tattoos viewed really differently to the way they're viewed now by older people," predicts Ms Smyth. "For younger women getting body art, it's just a part of their story."

"You're going to be wrinkly anyway," Ms Phelan agrees. "Why not have some amazing artwork?"

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