LAKE STATION, Ind. – Families are flooding into a quaint tattoo studio here on a crisp fall day. Mothers and teenage daughters. Dads and young sons. Granddaughters and grandmothers.

Pearl Scott, a 72-year-old grandmother in white tennis shoes, is standing at the front desk scanning her next design. She waits for a touch up on the dove at her neckline and wants a new tat to match her daughter-in-law’s ankle flowers.

Scott started this process a few years ago, after her husband of 42 years passed away. She said she always wanted one, but her sweetie was “old-fashioned” and wouldn’t go for it.

“He always said, “You can’t have a tattoo. Over my dead body!”‘ says Scott. “So here I am.”

The tattoo studio in America today is more of a family affair, and it has come a long way from the days when bikers and military men dominated the scene. A study published this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found 24 percent of adults ages 18 to 50 have a tattoo. A 2003 Harris poll reported 36 percent of 25 to 29 year olds have body art.

Studies of tattoos among teens are tougher to find, but a quick glance around many high schools today – particularly in less regulated states in the West – tells the story. Plenty of teens love body art, and their parents aren’t threatening to kick them out of the house. Instead, they’re welcoming it.

Take Kaelyn Marcus, who’s down the hall from Scott on a recent day at the bustling Personal Art tattoo studio in Lake Station. She just turned 17 and is getting her first tattoo. Hers – a four-leaf clover on the ankle – is a replica of her mom’s, grandmother’s and two aunts’. The design is in honor of Kaelyn’s grandfather, who died six years ago. Kaelyn’s mom – Lorna Marcus – is all for it.

“I just think tattoos are pretty,” her mom says, sitting beside a nervous Kaelyn just before the tattoo needle fires up. “I’m fine with it.”

Myrna Armstrong, a professor at the School of Nursing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is a national researcher on tattooing. She has studied the rise of tattooing over nearly two decades.

Stereotypes defied

Her first report, published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship in 1990, explored the growing number of career women getting tattoos. At the time, she thought of the women as pioneers, defying stereotypes about the type of person interested in body art. Now, nothing about the exploding tattoo industry surprises her.

In two studies of adolescents in the 1990s, she found 8 percent to 10 percent of teens had a tattoo. One student reported getting his first tattoo at age 8.

“Our teenagers today – really anyone over 11 years old – can tell you all about tattoos and body piercing. They know where they can get them, or they have friends who will self inflict them, or they even know how to do it themselves,” Armstrong said. “Today, it’s just a mainstream activity.”

A handful of states prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from getting a tattoo. Most states have age restrictions but still allow tattoos with the written permission of a parent. Other states are silent, leaving it up to cities or the tattoo studios to set rules.

Previously prohibited

Illinois previously prohibited tattoos until age 21. But legislators last year moved the age limit down to 18. State Rep. Jerry Mitchell, a Republican from Rock Falls, pushed the change in response to complaints from police, who said teens were loitering around tattoo and piercing studios anyway because body piercing at 18 was legal.

“Some of the tattoo parlors around here were kind of unsavory places,” Mitchell said. “Police here were concerned about drug trafficking.”

Still, many tattoo artists say the legislative change of heart has been a boon for business, as teens no longer have to go to neighboring states for a tat.

Even before the law change, Illinois teens seemed to have no problem getting tattoos, says Cynthia Mears, co-director of the adolescent medicine program for Children’s Memorial Hospital. She’s seen “plenty” of 14 and 15 year olds with tattoos, some of them self applied and some in places Mears would rather not describe.

One real indicator of the popularity of tattoos now is the atmosphere at tattoo conventions, says Bob Baxter, editor in chief of the national tattoo magazine Skin & Ink.

Baxter, who has been covering the tattoo business for more than a decade, said conventions are full of young mothers – a rare sight even five years ago. At a recent convention in Calgary, Baxter was taken aback by the crowd hovering around Kat Von D, the 24-year-old female tattoo artist and star of TLC’s “Miami Ink.”

“When I walked down the sidewalk years ago, mothers used to cross to the other side with their children,” said Baxter, who’s covered in body art. “Now, you’ve got them lined up to see Kat Von D. It’s really a turnaround.”

Tattoo fans look at their inks as the perfect way to express themselves in an impersonal world. And for many, getting the tattoo is a deeply symbolic, emotional act.

Tom Webel, a 22-year-old in the Army, got his first tattoo at 18. While on leave from active duty in Iraq, he recently showed up at Electric Art Tattoo in Fox Lake, Ill.

He wanted tattoos of the last names of three young guys in his company, all of whom died in the war.

Sharon Hurdlow, who is 64, started getting inked at Sacred Chao tattoo studio in Valparaiso, Ind., in the midst of breast cancer treatment two years ago. She now has 18 tattoos, many of them symbols of growth and renewal – a red cardinal, a rose, a bumblebee by a sunflower.


The variety of clients she sees now is downright heartwarming for Jeanne Fritch, owner of Personal Art, the Indiana studio that’s a favorite of Scott, the grandmother.

Fritch laughed the other day when a mother’s group called asking to rent her studio for a play date. The group plans to bring kids ranging in age from 18 months to 6 for temporary tattoos.

Fritch has been tattooing since 1978. This is after graduating from Hillsdale College in Michigan, interning for a congressman in Washington, and then flooring her conservative parents with the announcement of her chosen career.

“When I grew up, I didn’t even know anyone with a tattoo,” she said. “But it’s way more respected now. When I buy a house, I can actually say I’m a tattoo artist.”

Fritch is even starting in on the fourth generation for some of her loyal, longtime customers.

Her shop is an inviting place with yellow, faux-painted walls, hardwood floors and private rooms with massage tables and chairs with head rests. Fritch chats quietly with her clients, the tattoo drill buzzing away, as if she’s a dentist preparing to fill a cavity.

Many of Fritch’s clients are hoping to build a family tradition, and the young clients seem to put a lot of thought into their artwork. Lauren Curtis came in with her mom for her first tattoo before Halloween last year. She was 15, and Curtis says she thought long and hard about the placement.

“I tried to think about my professional career. I want to be a marine biologist,” she said, pointing out the subtle rose on her shoulder, matching the string of roses inked across her mother’s belly. She said she didn’t want anything she couldn’t cover up for an employer, and she’s now looking to expand her inks.

Despite such openness to tattooing among all ages, some tattoo artists still have work to do in bringing along the skeptics.

Marianne Gonzalez, the tattoo artist’s wife, saw that firsthand three years ago when she asked about a business license to open Electric Art Tattoo. She was fuming after her first phone call to Village Hall.

“The lady on the phone told me tattoo studios were considered adult entertainment,” Gonzalez said. “We weren’t welcome here.”

But Gonzalez fought back and eventually opened a studio along the main street in downtown Fox Lake, across the street from the post office. The shop has a wide range of clients today, including police officers and fire fighters. Free tattoos at her shop get raffled off at the police officer’s ball, Gonzalez said.

Indeed, facing the critics – and then turning them around – is pure fun for tattoo lovers.

For instance, Scott was tickled by the shocked reaction from her doctor in an exam before a recent hip replacement.

“He was like, “What do you call this, Grandma?’ And he was laughing,” Scott said. “But I’ve got to tell you, it makes me feel younger.”

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