LIKE many of you, I subscribe to Skin & Ink, the monthly magazine for tattoo enthusiasts. But I don't have any tattoos of my own. And I never will. To me, tattoos have a kind of fascinating, morbid permanence. Tattooed people seem to have a set of priorities, and indeed aesthetics, that are beyond my comprehension, like the ring-necked Padaung people of Burma. We know a Padaung woman thinks she's more beautiful looking like an gooseneck desk lamp, but come on! When I was growing up, people with tattoos were of one type. They drank cheap beer and arm-wrestled at funerals. They were missing at least one tooth and proud of it. They had a history of mercenary military operations. They picked their teeth with Harley-Davidson spark plugs. Most had committed murder. The men were even more unsavoury. Part of my aversion stems from the connection between skin doodles and the criminal fraternity. Once a professor friend of mine went to a Japanese bathhouse and found himself next to a naked yakuza, a man with ritual tattoos decorating every centimetre of his skin - at least, as far as he could tell. My friend could not get close enough to find out if every single centimetre was decorated. You don't get that close to a yakuza. In recent years, tattoos have become popular among people who would not get far in the yakuza, the triads or the Hell's Angels. The trend among these much more genteel people is to have a little picture of a bird, or perhaps a rose, usually in a place that can be covered over for a job interview. The idea is to be at once daring and safe. A decade ago my sister, an otherwise normal human who, to my knowledge, has never been a mercenary soldier, announced her intention of getting a fleur-de-lis embossed on her hock. I hurriedly sent some unasked-for advice in a telegram: 'For God's sake don't do it. Automatically lowers you four social classes.' My sister finally gave up, but there are plenty of people who wear tattoos with pride. You'll find them each month in Skin & Ink magazine. The approach of these ladies and gentlemen to having an indelible portrait inscribed on their chests is the same as most people's approach to a new hairstyle. Skin & Ink eggs them on in an ironically humdrum style. The magazine's instructional pieces resemble do-it-yourself articles about rebuilding your porch: 'Offering a tattoo artist your entire back requires a massive amount of trust where the client/artist relationship is concerned ... It's a major undertaking ... starting with the initial design consultation, to the hours and hours of time, effort and pain ... And don't forget the budgetary considerations.' Despite the magazine's insistence that tattoos are worn for personal expression, most of the artwork is depressingly unvarying: wizards, birds, tigers, flowers, dragons and every imaginable type of screaming, red-eyed skull. They resemble the visual fantasies of unimaginative teenagers executed in a style resembling bad heavy metal album covers. There are a few beauties. One man had his friends tattoo their names on his bald head, rather as one would on a leg cast. Another had his face completely covered with abstract patterns, rendering him at once unique, striking and unemployable in the civilised world. Michelle, a woman whose epidermal designs include a Picasso and a Kandinsky, says, with a terseness that approaches coherence: 'Tattooing was like, 'this is my body, this is my temple - I'm going to decorate my house'.' The problem is, it's tough to redecorate.