The news that David Dimbleby, the very model of lace-curtained respectability, has been tattooed with a two-and-a-half inch facsimile of a scorpion has prompted a certain amount of spluttering into teacups this week. Are tattoos not the preserve of musicians and bikers, rather than esteemed presenters of BBC current affairs programmes?
And more pertinently, isn't Dimbleby, at 75 years old, a bit too long in the tooth to sit in the tattooist's chair and have his skin punctured 150 times a second? The answer, according to tattoo artists, is an emphatic no. Dimbleby, who was inked as part of his new BBC show Britain and the Sea, is one of a growing number of people who are choosing to be tattooed in later life.
Last year, Lady Steel, the 73-year-old writer and wife of the former Liberal leader David Steel, revealed that she had marked her 70th birthday by having a pink leopard etched on to the skin of her shoulder. "You are never too old," Steel noted, "to do mad things." A sentiment perhaps shared by the journalist Liz Jones, 55, who had a rearing horse inked on to her upper arm, and actress Felicity Kendal, 66, who adorned her leg with a moon and two feathers (symbolising her elder son and grandchildren) in 2010.
"It is by no means unusual for us to see older people – of all backgrounds – coming through the door," says Naomi Reed, of London's Frith Street Tattoos.
According to a survey that appeared in the British Journal of Dermatology in August, having your first tattoo when you're that bit older is a wise move. While 36 per cent of 17- to 20-year-olds say they regret going under the needle, 30 per cent of over-40s say the same.
Certainly Dimbleby is very chipper about his scorpion. "You are only old once," he told the Radio Times. "I have always wanted a tattoo. I thought I might as well have it done now. It's a dream come true for me."
That notion – of a long-held dream finally realised – is familiar to tattoo artists working with older clients. "The young get tattoos to be cool, but for older people it is often a case of getting round to something, ticking something off a list," explains Curly Moore, of the Tattoo Club of Great Britain. "They tend to go for bigger stuff. I had a retired Oxford don who wanted lots of little things done all over his body. His wife hated them, so he'd never done it in the past, but after she died, he could."
What of the design, though? Are we about to see an epidemic of pensioners lumbered with Maori symbols on their arms or "carpe diem" on their upper thighs? "First of all, older people tend to be less concerned by the design and more by things like hygiene and process, but when they do make their choice it tends to be sentimental," says Rebecca Morris, whose partner at Vagabond tattoos in east London was the artist responsible for Dimbleby's scorpion. "I remember one lady, who was 75, came in to have a cat which had just died tattooed on to her – it was a comfort."
It is clear, then, that Truman Capote's razor-clawed observation that "there's always something terribly flawed about people who are tattooed" no longer holds water – in fact, it's leaking like a sieve.
The rising number of venerable silver heads having body art means that the tattoo as the symbol of the tearaway is fast becoming a thing of distant memory. Will it be the next big trend among the Saga generation? Perhaps not. But if Dimbleby has his way, there may be at least one more over-50 coming through the doors of Vagabond Studio. "I believe she [Dimbleby's wife Belinda] wanted a tattoo once, but has never got around to it," he said. "Maybe I'll be able to persuade her."
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