Lynn and Thom Sinnette, both in their 60s, received tattoos from Nuclear Ink tattoo artist Jesse Neese around five years ago.
“I didn’t go in looking to have half of my chest done, but then I went in and spoke with Jesse,” Lynn says.
For years Lynn disliked a poorly done tattoo on her chest. Neese offered a cover-up solution. He worked with her to craft a tattoo that was visually appealing but also effectively concealed the old tattoo.
“You can have an awesome idea, but not have the art experience to flesh it out,” Neese says.
Neese uses his tattoo experience and art degrees to work with clients. He believes the best designs are made when he and the client collaborate on a final product.
Neese and client Michael Rolf have a friendly relationship. They talk consistently during the hours it takes Neese to work on Rolf’s tattoo.
The tattoo stretches across his chest and onto both his arms. It features Alaskan wildlife and scenic imagery in honor of the trip he and his wife planned on taking.
The tattoo serves as a memorial for 55-year-old Rolf. His wife passed away three years ago, and they always wanted to take a trip to visit Alaska together. Rolf and his son went on the trip in her memory.
“I’m very pro-tattoo now that I’m older,” Rolf says. “I can make more responsible decisions, and I know what I want.”
Neese has built up a strong reputation as an Omaha tattoo artist. Some clients find him from out of state or keep returning to him after they move away. While Neese has customers from all demographics and backgrounds, he has a notable number of loyal, older clients. And they have some concerns.
“I get asked by seniors frequently if their skin is difficult to work on,” Neese says. “Really it depends on the area of the body. The only time it ever is difficult is when there has been a lot of sun exposure.”
The tattoo industry has been held to higher standards since the the time when today’s seniors were getting tattoos in their teens and 20s. It’s one of the reasons some clients are surprised by his workplace sanitation.
Rolf recalls a time when he was younger where he hosted “tattoo parties.” During such parties, a tattoo artist would come over and give quick, small tattoos to people.
“If I think of it now, it’s horrifying,” Rolf says. “Because, like, he would tattoo me, dip the needle in alcohol, and start on the next guy.”
That practice is a stark contrast from current sanitation standards. Neese teaches a seminar for fellow tattoo artists on how to prevent the transmission of disease in a tattoo parlor.
“It’s made me a bit particular about things,” Neese says.
Joseph “Smitty” Smith of Big Brain Productions says the senior group is their largest growing demographic each year. He attributes that to several factors, such as no longer having to worry if it will affect their career or standing with their neighbors. But he thinks there are often deeper motivations.
“Once you’ve collected some experience in life, you kind of want to celebrate that, and things that motivate people to get tattoos are, like, the birth of a loved one…Or maybe at that age they’ve survived a health problem, like breast cancer.”
Those with a few more years are likely to have a few more surgical procedures. More invasive operations can leave scars people carry for the rest of their lives.
Smith says tattooing over scars is “100 percent safe,” as long as the artist knows what they’re doing.
“It’s just different from the rest of the skin on your body and that poses a challenge, because you’re going from regular skin—so your machine is running at a speed of a depth that would be suitable for regular skin—and then you hit that scar tissue and it would be too deep,” he says. “So if you go over it too fast or too hard, you can damage it pretty easily. It takes a little bit of experience to be able to control that with your hand and with your eyes—with the feel—instead of just setting up your machines to run on that.”
Neese says that many people don’t realize that their insurance provider can sometimes pay for tattoos that cover up surgical scars. Whether clients are tattooing a scar to match their skin tone or covering it with colorful art, the tattoo can be claimed as a necessary part of the healing process.
Doctors can help their patients secure an insurance payout for a cover-up tattoo if it could improve their patient’s mental health.
“It can really help someone reclaim a lot that has been lost through a surgical process,” Neese says.
As it turns out, seniors face the same hurdles as other age groups when approaching a tattoo parlor. Foremost, though, medications have to be compatible with the tattooing procedure. Blood thinners usually need to be skipped in the preceding days. Smith says diabetes can also affect healing, specifically on extremities, such as the ankle or foot.
Neese recommends all his clients speak with their doctors beforehand if they take any medication that might cause extra bleeding or hinder healing.
Making tattoos last into the golden years can be difficult—especially for those who enjoy spending their days under the sun.
Lynn always makes sure to protect her tattoos with sunscreen when catching some rays. She says that she has not noticed any of the colors fading since she initially got the work done years ago.
As for those who might be on the fence, the Sinnettes have this advice for anyone contemplating a tattoo:
“If you’re a senior and you want a tattoo, just go for it,” Rolf says. “It’s your body. Don’t let anyone tell you shouldn’t have tattoos. I love my ink.”
“You live once, what the heck,” Lynn says. “Just get a good one.”
This article was printed in the July/August 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.