Phil walked into the lobby of the tattoo shop wearing a beanie hat paired with a tank top showing little peeks into his own rich tattoo history. I searched different sections of his skin wondering which ones were steeped in meaning; which ones were impulsive; which ones he might have completed in between clients. His large stature coupled with an undeniable chill vibe was the paradox I needed to go through with this
My first tattoo was about to go down in the thick of middle age. Definitely not a full-blown midlife crisis, but maybe a touch. My husband and I had toyed with the idea of getting our first tattoos together for a while, and when the pandemic mayhem finally started to equalize and we were no longer donning hazmat suits to grab amazon packages outside, it seemed like the perfect extreme behavior with which to engage.
The lobby was spotless with a badass bougieness to it. The walls were canvassed in edgy creativity and sass. I decided to start with something tiny just to make sure I wasn’t filled with buyer’s remorse. An itty bitty “J”, my husband’s initial on the side of my right wrist, accompanied by 4 tiny stars to represent my family of four. My husband went all in with larger tattoo on his inner bicep touting a play on an old Tribe Called Quest Album cover that incorporates mine and the kids’ initials.
I went first. I sat in the chair and based on the butterflies in my stomach you would have thought I was getting a full back tattoo. He placed my arm on his custom Gucci stand and the tattoo machine kicked on. The buzzing made my heart beat a little harder with anticipation but was downright curative. All that mental build up and my starter tattoo was complete in just a few minutes. It hurt more to stub my toe on my toddler’s barbie corvette than to complete my first tattoo. I knew before I even hopped out of the chair that I would be back.
I’m no tattoo expert, but it’s one of those things that you start talking about and everyone compares their experiences. There were a couple of things that stood out in the conversations I had with others.
1. Getting that first tattoo transforms you a little. You feel a bit more invincible and fueled to rebel against something. I don’t know what exactly because it’s different for everyone. For some it was an ex who hated tattoos. For others it was the family that forbade it. And for some it was just something inside of them that needed to be set free and the tattoo was a tangible part of that liberation.
2. Your first is most likely just the gateway tattoo and many who get past that first little ink pen jab with zero regret are already plotting their subsequent tattoos before they have even get up from the chair.
3. Moms particularly went out in droves post-pandemic to therapize in some way with tattoos
My mother (who was babysitting) was not yet on board. She was lobbying against it, telling me in her thick long island drawl that I would no longer be pure, to which I reminded her that I am on my second marriage and in my 40s and that ship sailed a long time ago. Cut to me walking in the door after it was done, her examining it closely with her dollar store readers and asking why I got such a small one. I fully expected a passive aggressive festival of comments but was instead met with, “That’s it! It’s so small, you should have gotten it bigger. I mean if you’re going to do it, Rachel, DO IT!”
As I talked more with other moms, I realized I wasn’t only in the mid-life tattoo movement. I don’t know if cabin fever just got to all of us during the pandemic. Maybe wiping down groceries and sanitizing everything evaporated the last shred of patience we had left and lowered our collective inhibitions. Perhaps it’s just part of that thing us middle-aged women go through where we feel more comfortable with who we are than ever before and are looking at life through a different lens. Time Magazine published an article in August of 2021 talking about the boom in the tattoo industry on the heels of the pandemic. They said, “According to IBIS World analysts, the $1.4 billion tattoo artist industry is expected to increase its market size by 23.2% in 2021—a faster growth rate than that of the consumer goods and services sector as a whole.” Whatever the driver, moms everywhere seemed to be running out to get tattoos, many for the first time ever. The one common thread I found among the moms I spoke to is that every skillful piece of body art was steeped in meaning.
Dana Brillante from @modernmomlounge wasn’t a stranger to the tattoo chair when she got her first post-pandemic ink, but hers was filled with emotion. Her newest was designed to cover up something she got a couple of decades prior. “My dragonfly holds special meaning to me,” she said. “I was going through a lot personally, and the dragonfly represents self-actualization, change and transformation.”
Jen Schwartz from creator of @motherhoodunderstood was like me and waited until middle age. “I will get my tattoo when I lose ten more pounds or when I hit this milestone, etc. Finally, I just decided to go for it. Covid could have had something to do with it too. I was wanting to do something new and spontaneous after living through 2020.”
Jen’s attitude is just more validation of the uptick in spontaneity and living life without abandon following the pandemic. Not only did I have some back and forth with both Dana and Jen about our tattoos, but I also actually referred them both Phil and had the pleasure of accompanying Jen when she got her first (Yes there was a second that followed).
I was curious what Phil made of this mom exodus toward tattoos. He thinks “the interest in tattoos has always been part of the ‘mom crowd’ if you will. Each one of us has an inner badass just wanting to shine. Living in a post pandemic world, amongst other things has taught us how to value life and making memories can be.” He went on to say, “Why would we waste our moments not expressing ourselves as we see fit, looking as we see fit, but most of all living as we see fit?”
Phil is all about the clientele he affectionately calls the “mom squad”. “I’m happy to see them in our shops! I’m honored that they not only feel that they’re in a safe environment but one that respects them above all else. It’s never a dull moment and I love having the opportunity to make permanent memories for them.”
I visited Phillip Wolves at A Stroke of Genius Tattoos, for three more tattoos within a few months. I went in for my grandmother’s delicate but purposeful signature, a couple of weeks after she passed away, swooped along my outer right forearm. Then my mother handed me $200 from my late grandmother’s pishka (basically Yiddush for “little money stash”) and told me I should use it for a tattoo. She suggested something honoring her specifically because she “didn’t need to wait until she was dead for me to get one. She’d like to look at it while she’s still here.” So, I took my favorite picture of the two of us and had my tattoo artist sketch the outline of it with many fine-line details on my inner forearm. It’s my biggest and most detailed so far. My 4th is a very modest and simple ampersand on my left inner wrist that matches with my best friend of 30+ years. It’s a small symbol with big meaning that it’s she & I, forever & ever.
I used to say I would never get a tattoo because there’s nothing I could ever imagine wanting on my body forever. I watched many friends get a lot of butterflies, flowers, and infinity signs in our 20s. Then I hit my 40s, and with my first tattoo immediately understood that “itch” people reference. And the feeling I get looking down at them is something I can’t explain. Each one carries an emotional connection and is like an artfully illustrated documentation of my personal evolution.
Maybe it was a renewed zest for life with desires to try new things. Perhaps a need to break free of the self or societally imposed confines around tattoo stigmas. All I know is that there were clear signs that moms, myself included, are hopping into tattoo chairs with gusto. More than once and many of us are just getting started.