Monica Hamilton got her first tattoo at age 20 – a fairy on the left side of her chest. She loved it and over the years got several more symbolizing people she loves and landmark moments.
But after living a life and raising two children, she noticed her fairy had changed along with her body.
“By my early 30s, I had had two kids and had gained weight. The fairy was stretched and looking long and skinny,” says Ms. Hamilton, 49, an investment advisor associate from Sylvan Lake, Alta.
She opted to have a tattoo artist touch it up, extending the fairy’s wings, plumping up the profile shape and brightening the colours. She loves it.
“My body continues to change and the tattoo changes with it,” she says. “I don’t think I will touch it up again. She and I are ageing together.”
Tattoos, like the skin they’re in, are subject to the sands of time.
Josh Skrupskas, a tattoo artist and brand manager for Chronic Ink Tattoo, which has studios in Greater Toronto and Vancouver, says it’s become fairly common for mature customers to come in to have vintage tattoos touched up.
“Over time, the tattoo faded or for whatever reason is not holding up the way they had hoped,” he says. “If they’re still happy with the design they would have, ideally, the original artist go over it and breathe some new life into it.”
If the customer is no longer happy with the design, an artist may be able to design a new tattoo that covers the original, he says.
In cases when neither of those will do, there is laser removal.
“You can fully remove a tattoo; it just takes quite a long time,” Mr. Skrupskas says.
A laser delivers high-temperature pulses at rapid speed that breaks up the ink particles in the skin. Once broken up, the ink particles are flushed naturally out of the system while the surrounding skin is undamaged.
While laser treatments are available widely, the Canadian Dermatology Association would prefer directed-energy dermatology devices – including tattoo and hair removal laser systems – be offered by physicians or physician-designated staff.
Lisa Kellett, a Toronto-based dermatologist and member of the Canadian Dermatology Association and the Canadian Laser Aesthetic Surgery Society, suggests that while that is not currently the case, anyone considering laser tattoo removal should see a professional.
Professionals understand the process, what kind of inks can be removed and what kind of lasers are appropriate for various procedures, Dr. Kellett says. They can also provide anesthetic for comfort, she adds.
She has removed thousands of tattoos. She has also treated patients who have had improper laser treatments, with light sources such as intense pulse light, which has a significant risk of burns or scarring. She has also seen infections and allergic reactions to tattoo ink.
And she’s seen many patients who just don’t like the look of a tattoo anymore.
“Some want to be able to wear something and be more comfortable with what they’re wearing. Sometimes the tattoo is associated with something unpleasant and they want to forget about that,” Dr. Kellett says.
Laser removal takes multiple sessions and complete removal can’t be guaranteed, she says.
“The laser operator needs to understand the skin type of the patient being treated because the skin type will dictate the strength of the laser,” she says. “And (the laser operator) should be cognizant of an individual’s patient’s tendency to develop hypertrophic or keloid scars because that is also important to know.”
Scarring is rare but it can happen, she says, and there can be inflammation or temporary changes in skin pigment.
Of course, the best option for an aging tattoo is to keep skin healthy before there is a problem, she says.
“Avoiding the sun is, by far, the best thing you could do for anti-aging,” Dr. Kellett says.
Mature people are not just rethinking the tattoos they got in their youth, though. They’re also rethinking the ones they didn’t get.
As frequently as people come in for tattoo removal or cover-ups, they also come in to get their first tattoos well into adulthood, Mr. Skrupskas says.
“Every single day you can walk into a Chronic Ink studio and see people from 18 up through 70 and I’m sure we’ve seen older as well,” he says.
Tattoos are not the red flag of rebellion they once were. They’re mainstream and mature people who might have avoided getting inked out of concern that it would be viewed negatively at work or make the neighbours nervous are going ahead, he suggests.
“Tattoos are more culturally acceptable,” he says. “People want to get tattooed and, maybe for different generations that wasn’t always the way it was, but they’re taking advantage of it now.”
Ms. Hamilton gifted her late stepfather a tattoo for his 70th birthday. They were in the studio together – she getting her tattoo touched up and him getting his first-ever.
“He never appreciated or liked tattoos but he started watching the show Miami Ink and started to appreciate the artistry in tattooing and the individual reasons people chose them,” she says.
When he said maybe he would get someday, she jumped on it. The former navy man with a love for sailing chose a compass rose.
“He loved it and wore it proudly,” she says. “I may replicate a portion of it as a memorial. It was such a cool thing to do together.”