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The tattoo trend: Is it for everyone?

Have tattoos now lost their shock value? Say hello to the next big thing in mainstream beauty

Angelina Jolie tattoo on wrist and arm

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images (Angelina Jolie)

Once the sole province of counterculture youth and circus sideshows, tattooed women are now, well, overwhelmingly commonplace. While there are no reliable statistics on the number of women currently sporting ink, tons of anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that tattoos have crept into the mainstream. For instance, 2009 saw tattooed mannequins in the Bay’s windows, and in 2011, a tattooed Barbie doll was released. Over the past few years Toronto Public Health reported a dramatic increase in tattoo parlours (there are 94 in Toronto alone), and Ottawa Public Health had to hire more inspectors to keep up with the growing demand. In 2009, a judge ruled that a Quebec woman’s visible tattoos were acceptable in her daycare workplace.

Our recent (wholly unscientific) survey confirms that age no longer determines whether you find tattoos appealing. We talked to twentysomethings with total body coverage as well as those who wouldn’t dream of getting a tat. We’ve heard from tattoo enthusiasts in their 40s and 50s and other boomers who are considering getting their first tattoo.

Barb Reynolds, a 51-year-old in advertising in St. John’s, N.L., got a tattoo of mickey mouse six years ago, before a girlfriends’ getaway to Disney World. It was her first and only. “Several women I know have gotten them recently: One of my friends got a rose and one got a unicorn. I’m not keen on a whole pile of them, but little tattoos can look pretty.”

A fiftysomething woman from Mississauga, Ont., sums up changing attitudes this way: “When I was younger, they were taboo and people made unkind assumptions about women who displayed them. Now they’re called body art and I’ve seen a few that are actually elegant. I still have concerns about pain and infection, but I wouldn’t hold a tasteful, discreet or meaningful design against anyone either.”

Of course, the urge to selfadorn is as old as humanity itself. In ancient Egypt, where it appears only women were tattooed, the markings seem to connect with fertility and women’s roles as producers of the next generation, according to Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist at England’s University of York.

And still today, women often cite significant life events — a child’s birth, a mother’s death, a past love — as the impetus for succumbing to the desire to ink, rather than pure self-decoration. Tellie Hunt, a 20-year-old Torontonian whose tattoos include a dramatic shoulder-to-wrist fantasia of roses and moths, says of her body art, “It’s like a photo book, looking back at times of my life, different things I was going through. Most of my tattoos have some weird, obscure meaning or remind me of a good time in my life that I always want to remember.” She adds that she and her mother have matching tattoos, another popular trend.

Despite changing mores and constant photo reminders of celebrities’ insatiable appetite for ink, there are plenty of women who still just don’t get it. The pain’s a big deterrent, but the permanence is even more daunting. It’s like committing to wearing the same eyeshadow or bracelet every day for the rest of your life.

And as Terisa Green, archaeologist and author of Ink: The Not-Just-Skin-Deep Guide to Getting a Tattoo, points out, the commitmment extends to having the “tattoo conversation” — being asked about it by complete strangers — over and over again, forever.

But for aficionados like Tellie Hunt, tattoos may be the ultimate beauty enhancer, a way to express oneself and define one’s persona that goes well beyond traditional makeup or fashion. She says, “I think when people look at me they don’t just see the outer layer — they see more behind it. Plus, I feel more myself.” And as Terisa Green so succinctly puts it, “No woman ever gets a tattoo thinking she’ll be uglier.”

What do you think of tattoos? Do you like them or hate them? Please share your thoughts here or in the comments below.