Am I Too Old to Get a Tattoo?

At age 33, I've started to rethink ink. But has my window closed?

I have never once in my life wanted to get a tattoo. This is surprising, as I’ve never been one to turn away any sort of accessory or adornment. But the permanence of a tattoo scares me. They’ve always seemed nice in theory; in my mind I’ve slotted them next to things like culottes or overalls: great on other people, just not on me. But lately – perhaps due to a slightly premature mid-life crisis, and certainly fueled by evenings spent binge-watching Ink Master — I’ve started to rethink ink.

I recently read an article in an issue of the New York Times Style magazine in which 44-year-old Olga of Greece — a real princess! — was quoted as saying that it’s “never too late to get a tattoo.” She said she “very recently” got her first, at some renowned parlor in Milan. You know, as princesses do.

Still, it feels as though my tattoo window has closed. I spent my teens and twenties ink-free, arguably the time most people get their first – often dubiously cool – tattoos. Certainly if I’d gone under the needle then, I’d have a stupid butterfly or Chinese symbol on my ankle. Plus, I’m notoriously indecisive. I can barely decide what I want to eat for dinner each day; how would I ever decide what to get permanently inked on my body? 

“You’d get something dumb, like a little ‘e’ on the inside of your wrist,” said my sister matter-of-factly when I told her I was reconsidering the whole tattoo thing. She’s probably right. My tattoo would be small, some scrawl of a letter the size of a mole or a large freckle. There’s no shortage of tiny tat inspiration out there: Petite, delicate tattoos are having a moment now. Maybe, then, it’s the perfect time to go under the needle? 

“We won’t tattoo anyone under the age of 18, so we’ve seen everyone from people coming in the day of their eighteenth birthday to a lady in her 80s getting her first tattoo,” said Justin Rakowski, an apprentice at Fishtown’s Art Machine Productions tattoo studio. (She got a little cross, in case you’re wondering.) “We see people on a regular basis in their 30s, 40s and 50s coming in for their first tattoos. It’s a lot more common than you’d expect.” Grace Tattoo in Phoenixville sees a lot of new first-time clients in their 60s; they tattoo families together, grandparents to adult grandchildren. (Is this the modern family reunion?)

Perhaps they’re all feeling what I’m feeling: a lingering sense of boredom with my look. My hair is long and beige-y blonde. It’s pretty hair. It’s not the edgy bleached-blonde crops of Kate Lanphear or even Taylor Swift, or the mussed brunette shags of Caroline de Maigret or Alexa Chung. I have Basic Girl hair. Maybe a tattoo would help sharpen my edge a bit. 

I talked with my coworker, a 25-year-old who has six tattoos. She got her first – a trio of stars on her wrist – at 16. “Whatever age you are when you get your first tattoo, I feel like you need to either be the kind of person who has thought about it, traced an outline of it a gazillion times, and knows this is exactly what you want, or you need to be the kind of person who can be spontaneous, say ‘screw it’ and deal with it if you end up not liking it.”

So, then, here’s my problem: I’m not either kind of person. The most spontaneous thing I’ve done is pop out of work with a coworker at lunchtime to get a few cartilage piercings. Even then, I’d brought with me half a dozen pictures of what I wanted.

For now, I’m content with the possibility of getting of a tattoo, letting the idea sink in, debating what I’d get (something small, on my wrist, just as my sister predicted), flicking through online slideshows and marveling over the talented artists in our local tattoo studios and on Ink Master. I doubt I’ll get one anytime soon, but at least I know now that my window hasn’t closed, and isn’t closing anytime soon. Maybe I’ll book at session for 50 years from now, to celebrate my 80th birthday. Hey, why not?