Getting Tattooed at 50 Was a Totally Different Experience Than at 25

by Marion Rosenfeld

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I got the tattoo on my lower back in 1990 — when tattooing in New York City was in the grey area of illegality and it would still be a good decade (and a half?) before that specific placement of body art was referred to as "tramp stamp." In the old days, before the advent of the Internet, I researched artists with issues of Outlaw Biker Tattoo Review. Buying the magazine provided the first frisson of naughtiness that the subsequent tattoo would hold permanently (or at least until it became legal in New York and I came out of the closet to my folks). 

I ended up making an appointment with a respected artist named Jonathan Shaw who worked out of a ground floor/semi-subterranean apartment in the East Village that was dim and a little grungy, but set the stage perfectly for then-25-year-old me to get a little piece of my dying youthful rebellion out of my system. 

The design I chose was based after a turn of the last century Ukiyo-E wood cut fish (Why a fish? To this day I'm not entirely sure since I'm neither a Pieces nor a water-based animal super-fan, but the design spoke to me); as I was a huge Nipponophile who, after college graduation, worked and travelled Japan for six months. But by the time I got the tattoo, I was home from Japan for a couple of years and was already in my second "big girl" job. In 1990 it was important to have a permanent souvenir of Japan and a tattoo was a slightly perverse memento of encroaching adulthood.  

Fast-forward a quarter of a century: I wanted to get a tattoo to mark my 50th and thought it would be a nice bookend to get the original artist to work on me. I discovered that Jonathan Shaw moved to LA, became a celebrity tattoo artist, was Johnny Depp's BFF/apologist, and was pretty much retired. So I started following tattoo artists on Instagram and discovered a Brooklyn-based tattooist whose work sang an opera in my eyes and I could imagine it on my aging flesh.  

Read more: Old Enough to Know Better: Come Take a Sip From My Fountain of Youth

So much has happened in the 25 years since my first tattoo. I've gone freelance, written articles, published books, launched websites, produced TV shows, got married, had a child (now 13), helped both my parents die (within the past six years), co-created a non-profit (teaching children to cook at public school), all while trying to be a "good person" who tries to nurture my family, be a good friend, an active citizen, and enthusiastic collaborator. 

The new tattoo would be the ink that marks my maturation. 

Only after I made the appointment did I tell my husband and child. My husband's reaction was surprise (actually, it was nearly shock since I never told him I was even interested in getting another tattoo) and my daughter's reaction was that she wanted her own. 

Acquiring the new tattoo was less punk rock than my first and more of an episode of Girls: Live. Before getting an appointment, I had to email the artist with what I referred to as an "RFP" (write why and what you want tattooed) and then she selects whom she wants to work on. Once I was accepted (YES!) I took the G train to Greenpoint, Brooklyn (a Girls subway stop), walked through a neighborhood thronged with Polish immigrants and 20-somethings (a Girls outdoor location), meandered down some semi-deserted streets (ditto), and ended up at a "creative maker space" of three floors of clean, small, well-lit office spaces occupied by mostly millennial artists and craftspeople each doing their own thing.  

I ended up choosing to get a cherry blossom branch, selecting this because of the hint of Japan it conveys, the memory of the trees in blossom in Washington DC on an early date with my husband, our wedding chuppah which was made from cherry blossom branches, and the knowledge that nature-based imagery encompasses all the truths: birth, life, survival, struggle, hibernation, death, beauty, decay, triumph. All of it.

Image via Tea Leigh

Image via Tea Leigh

This time I did not need to hide the tattoo on my back in fear that my parents or future employers would judge me, and got it placed on my upper arm. I realize that by age 50 (now, 51) and with both parents dead, I will never have a job where the tattoo would make or break my hire-ability. In fact, after my husband roused himself from his fugue-like confusion over my announcement of getting the new tattoo, suggested the placement: "Don't you want to be able to see it?"  And he's right. I do want to see it. And I look at it and I love it. The graphic black cherry blossom branch on my tricep complements the now-melty-looking colorful Japanese fish on my lower back. Maybe come my 75th, I'll have an artist work on my oldest tattoo and bring it all together? 


Marion Rosenfeld, a lifelong New Yorker, walks the fine line between polymath and dilettante. She has spent her entire career in media, topically focussing on pop culture and food. Married to a Marine-turned-Pastry Chef in 2000, she recognizes that her now-teenage daughter is not the narcissistic extension of her self.