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TATTOOS // the skin as canvas

It's a mother's nightmare. Tattoos, those last-forever pictures on skin once popular mainly on society's fringes, have made their way into the social mainstream.

"There was kind of a shift in the customer base about six or seven years ago," said Ken Cameron, a tattoo artist whose shop, South Beach Tattoo Co., was crowded with about a dozen potential customers one recent sunny afternoon. Although some fit the stereotype of someone who would want a tattoo _ one woman with a pierced eyebrow left with a new hole below her lower lip _ others were a cross-section of ordinary young America, wearing shorts, T-shirts, jeans, khaki slacks and button-down shirts as they eyed the "flash," sheets of available designs lining the store walls.

"A higher percentage of our business is college students. It has been gradually growing," Cameron said.

One measure of tattoos' new legitimacy is a museum exhibition, "Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos," first mounted in New York last year and now touring the country. The show is about "bringing a popular culture into a world of higher art. And on top of that, they are beautiful," said Bonnie Clearwater, curator of Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, where the exhibition will be on view until late May.

"Pierced Hearts" includes nearly 300 drawings for tattoos from the late 1800s to the present, plus photographs of completed tattoos, stencils used to apply tattoos to subjects' bodies and the hand tools the artists use. Images in the exhibit include the familiar range of hearts, snakes, skulls, half-dressed women and anchors that have been in vogue for decades, as well as Japanese-style full-body tattoos with dragons and flowers.

The colors on the newer drawings are brighter than the old _ dyes are better than they used to be _ but the themes of toughness, eroticism, religious faith and allegiance to country or loved ones remain constant.

Cameron guessed one reason for the popularity of tattoos recently has been the pervasiveness of popular culture, notably the worldwide reach of music videos. "Everything that's available in New York or Los Angeles or Boston . . . is available to people in any little tiny small town of 100 people," he said.

Tattoo conventions in recent years have been in cities as disparate as Dallas, Pittsburgh and Motherwell, Scotland. A growing number of national and international magazines now focus on tattooing, complete with mainstream advertising and television commercials have shown people with tattoos. Many celebrities have been through tattoo parlors.

Sean Connery bears the words "Scotland Forever" on his arm, while actor/comedian Whoopi Goldberg has the bird Woodstock from the "Peanuts" cartoon above her left breast. Several supermodels including Florida's Nikki Taylor have been tattooed, along with one-named performers Cher, Madonna and Roseanne. And a great many athletes, notably Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman, have body art.

"It's definitely a trend that's going around. Everybody's got tattoos nowadays," said Marciano Nicolls, 23, a professional basketball player who had just returned from a season with the Banska Bystrica team in the Slovak Republic, as he waited to get a tattoo of a basketball and a panther.

In contrast to the days when most tattoos were on sailors or bikers, Cameron said about half of his customers are women. Customers often come in bearing a picture of a celebrity's tattoo that they wanted duplicated. "That happens more than you can possibly believe," he said.

Getting a tattoo does hurt, although not as much as many customers expect, and it should be viewed as permanent. Laser removal is expensive and not covered by health insurance, although it is a growing industry.

Candela Corp, which sells laser systems for tattoo removal, estimates that 9 percent of all Americans _ or more than 20-million people _ are adorned with tattoos. The company claims as many as half of them would like their tattoos removed, although tattooists said their experience is that most people who get one tattoo end up getting more.