POST 50
03/23/2012 08:38 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Tattoos -- And Their Removal -- Is A Booming Boomer Business

While some midlifers may connect with their inner rebel by getting a heart tattooed on their ankle or chest, some who already have tattoos are looking ahead to the day when that once-vibrant rose becomes a droopy flower. The result: Both the businesses of getting tattoos -- and removing them -- are thriving. And it proves once again how Boomers rarely speak in one voice.

One in five -- 21 percent-- of Americans 18 or older has a tattoo, according to a recent Harris poll, which is a jump from 14 percent in 2008. But among those 65 or older, only 5 percent have tattoos and an unscientific guess here says many of them say "Mom" and are on the arms of one-time sailors.

But there are always the exceptions, like Harvard-educated 58-year-old Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times who got a New York City subway token tattooed on her arm when she moved back to the city from Washington D.C. at age 49. New York Magazine likened the event to a soldier returning home from battle.

Or women like Pam Gallagher, a 65-year-old redhead who lives in the Sun City Hilton Head retirement community in Bluffton S.C. and works as a freelance writer.

About a dozen years ago, Gallagher was visiting a friend in Los Angeles who wanted a tattoo. They drove up to a Studio City tattoo parlor in her friend's Lexus bearing a vanity license plate that said "BLOOMIES," and had what Gallagher describes as "a girlfriend-bonding experience." It was Thelma and Louise all over again. Up until the minute that she walked into the tattoo parlor, Gallagher had never given a moment's thought to getting one herself, she said.

Gallagher went first. She wanted something small and let size determine her tattoo. Now, sitting right at the bikini line on her left hip is what she calls a "tribal symbol" that measures an inch tall and about a half-inch wide. She doesn't know what tribe or what symbol it is, nor does she care. "I just didn't want a rose or a butterfly," she said.

As for the impulsiveness of the gesture, she's the first to admit, this was something out of character for her. "I've taken more time picking out a lipstick," she said.

But does she have any plans to remove it, now that she's on Medicare and a card-carrying member of AARP? "None whatsoever," she says. "I like it. I like its permanence. I like catching a glimpse of it and remembering what an incredibly wonderful time I had with my friend that day." She recalls a few years ago, appearing poolside at the retirement village in a tankini where her tattoo garnered quite a few favorable comments.

Shelley Susman, an OB/GYN who practices in greater Los Angeles and has an admitted "fascination with tattoos," said she occasionally sees older women with tattoos in her office. Most are "free spirits," she added, and wear tattoos on their ankles or legs.

"Once I did get a lady who had tattooed a bra over her chest. She was younger ... but artistic!" Susman said. "There are a few brave souls who tattoo their vulvar area." One such tattoo said "For my man." Another patient had flames tattooed in the area, reports the gynocologist, noting it was dramatic enough to be unshakable from her memory.

The real surge in tattoos is seen in those ages 30 to 39, where 38 percent of the population has them, according to the Harris study. Just 11 percent of people ages 50 to 64 are tattooed.

While the increasing number of adults with tattoos points to greater acceptability for permanent body art, there are still parts of the population that attach a negative stigma to tattoos. As a result of that -- or in some cases, just a desire to distance the tattoo-bearer from a previous time of their life -- tattoo removal is also thriving.

The recession and its accompanying workforce shrinkage may have caused some to rethink their tattoos. The prevailing thinking is: Why give a hiring boss any reason to reject you? No one wants to blow a job interview because of a snake crawling down their arm. Among non-tattooed people, 54 percent said they regarded those with tattoos as "more rebellious," said the Harris poll.

How hard is it to have a tattoo removed? The consensus is that's it's harder to get rid of than it was to get. The removal results are also variable, depending on the inks used and the depth of the tattoo. The American Academy of Dermatology website says that dark blue, red, some lighter blues and green inks all respond well to laser treatment, "but the best candidates for tattoo removal are people with light skin who have a black ink tattoo." Laser removals may require several sessions. Dermabrasion and surgery are also options.

The bottom line: Don't get one unless you are absolutely sure you want to live with it for the rest of your life -- which is precisely the certainty that Marjorie Hope Gross felt when she got her first tattoo as a 50th birthday present to herself 12 years ago. The artwork circles the nipple on her left breast and she says that neither time nor aging seem to have caused much "damage" to the image.

"For me, it's decorative in the same way jewelry and makeup are," she said, adding, "Why not have fun?"

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