Bette Hileman says she “did some strange things” when she was diagnosed with lymphoma in January 2012.
“When I was lying in the hospital, I got a bucket list going and asked my doctor if I could get my nose pierced,” said Hileman, 74, who always admired her 30-year-old granddaughter Trina Tanner’s piercing and copied the body modification when her doctor signed off.
Hileman shattered another age-related stereotype that summer when she and her granddaughter had matching green lymphoma ribbons tattooed just above their right ankles. She got a second tattoo less than six months later, and convinced her late husband Phil to do the same.
And while a pair of recent surveys have found tattoos and body piercings rare among older Americans, local tattoo artists say stories like Hileman’s are becoming more common thanks to new advances in body art technology and a slow breakdown of some long-held taboos against this type of self expression by millennials and the youngest members of Generation X.
“Just the other day, everyone in the shop was over 40 or 50,” said Edward Kehoe, owner of Monolith Tattoo Studio on Third Street in Bend. “Somewhere in the back of their minds, these people have always wanted to get a tattoo, they just never got around to doing it until now.”
Before she got the ribbon on her ankle, Hileman had thought about getting a butterfly tattoo to cover up a scar left from when she had a mole removed on her back, but said “it didn’t materialize … (because) it wasn’t that important to me.”
She also had some permanent makeup — a tattoo-like technique known as micropigmentation where pigments are injected into the upper layers of the skin — put on her eyelids and her eyebrows to make up for a loss of facial hair she experienced in the mid-1990s.
But Hileman didn’t get her first real tattoo until she was 71. Her cancer went into remission, and Trina came by with a little surprise.
“My granddaughter came down and said we’re going to do something fun,” Hileman said, explaining that after a drive through Eugene — where she lived before moving to Bend this spring — she ended up at a tattoo studio and had the ribbon put on her ankle.
Less than a year after she got the ribbon, Hileman convinced her husband Phil to get an eagle’s head/American flag design tattooed on his upper arm. Hileman said he always talked about this design because he served in the U.S. Navy and was very patriotic, but, like her, never pulled the trigger until she gave him the little push he needed to move forward.
When Phil died this past spring, Hileman said another granddaughter, Kayla Hileman, 26, had the same eagle/American flag design tattooed on her leg in his memory. She blended it in with a lymphoma ribbon tattoo she had done soon after Hileman and Tanner got theirs in 2012.
But these weren’t the only tattoos that came out of Phil’s trip to the tattoo studio. When Hileman was sitting in the lobby while Phil was having this work done two years ago, she found the inspiration for what would become the second half of her ankle tattoo.
“I was looking through this book and I saw this cupid with horns,” Hileman said. “It reminded me of me and so I got that done as well.”
Body art of any kind is a rarity among older Americans, according to a 2010 report published by the Pew Research Center that found only 6 percent of the Silent generation’s members (people born before 1945) and 15 percent of baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) had a tattoo that year.
That survey found that only 1 percent of people 45 or older have a piercing someplace besides their earlobe — a statistic that puts Hileman in an even bigger minority than seniors who have a tattoo — compared to 9 percent of Generation X (people born between 1965 and 1980) and 23 percent of millennial adults (people born between 1981 and 1992.)
These findings were echoed in a Harris Interactive poll that found only 11 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds and 5 percent of those who were 65 or older had a tattoo in 2012. Both surveys found more than a fifth of the population — 23 percent in the Pew survey, and 21 percent in the Harris poll — has at least one tattoo, and people in their 20s and 30s are twice, if not three times more likely, to get work done than members of their parent’s generations.
But these patterns are starting to change, said Tim Grounds, the co-owner of Bend’s Dragonfly Body Art. He said the sheer number of younger adults who are getting tattoos is causing older adults, particularly employers, to change their negative perceptions about body art.
“It’s becoming more acceptable,” he said, adding this change of perceptions is opening the door for older adults who may have wanted to get a tattoo in the past to move forward. “(They’re saying) if these younger guys are able to get away with doing it, then it’s my chance to do it.”
Like Kehoe at Monolith, Grounds said about a fifth of the people who come by his tattoo and piercing studio are 50 or older. He said they tend to go for designs that feature flowers and the name or portraits of someone who recently passed away.
“It’s just the things that are in their life, that remind them of the past and the people they knew,” he said, explaining that while a handful of his clients are in their 70s like Hileman, it is still extremely rare.
Kehoe said his older clients tend to gravitate toward natural images — butterflies, flowers, mountain views and sunsets — when it comes to the design they want to have tattooed on their bodies. He said older people getting tattoos is becoming so common, it’s even shocking some of his clients.
“You don’t know how many times I’ve had kids come in and say, ‘My parents are going to freak out (that I got a tattoo,)’” he said, adding those parents often come by his studio a few weeks later to get their own tattoo.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org