HE TOLD ME TO TAKE OFF MY PANTS AND LIE DOWN. I did. I remember looking at the big clock on the wall above me. I did not know it then, but that first glance was the start of a six-hour relationship with those twelve numbers. At times I stared at it, winced at it, willed its hands to stop what seemed like their backward movement. Other times I looked away, thinking it might speed the process of transforming the skin stretched across the small of my back into a work of art. Had I known my new tattoo would require lying so still for so long, I might have chickened out. But I didn’t know, and neither did the artist, who said he could finish the job in two or three hours. That optimistic prognosis convinced me I could handle it, and so did the distant memory of my first tattoo: a little cow on my right bicep, conceived one morning a decade ago and completed in less than an hour that same afternoon. I recalled that it hurt quite a bit, but also that nearly all of the pain ceased the moment the inking was over.

I was enormously pleased with that tattoo and still am; it’s a measure of my independence and an emblem of my identity. That’s why I got a second one—eventually. It was not a decision I made easily. When I was in my twenties, I pulled all sorts of stunts (odd haircuts, odd piercings) to get attention. But as I got older and had a baby, I began to wonder if maybe enough wasn’t enough. And really, even if I did want attention, was another tattoo the way to go? I got my first one in Hollywood; lots of people had them there. But as soon as I moved to a succession of less self-consciously hip cities, my little cow might as well have been full-sized, real-life, and sitting on my head for all the commotion it caused. The snide questions ranged from “What’s going to happen when you’re a grandmother?” to “You’re going to cover it for my wedding, right?”

But by the time I was ready for a second tattoo, tattooing had become much more respectable. We’re not talking apple pie and motherhood, but tattoo artists are just about everywhere these days, from big cities to small towns, and people from all walks of life—not just the stereotypical bikers, punks, and sailors—proudly show their ink. There are politicos like Jacques Barzaghi, the campaign manager for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential bid, whose body is covered with tattoos depicting Zen Buddhist symbols and Tibetan mandalas, and George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, who has a Princeton Tiger tattooed on his tush. There are celebrities like Roseanne, Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg (who has Woodstock from the Peanuts comic strip inked over her heart), Nicolas Cage, Cher, Sean Connery, Heather Locklear, Madonna, and Johnny Depp (who had “Winona Forever” drawn on his arm when he was dating Winona Ryder and since their breakup has altered it to “Wino Forever”). Boxer Mike Tyson has a likeness of Mao Zedong on one bicep and tennis star Arthur Ashe on the other. Shaquille O’Neal has a Superman logo on his left arm and “TWISM” (an acronym for “The World Is Mine”) on his right. Dennis Rodman is a walking tattoo museum. Even Nike CEO Phil Knight has gone under the tattoo gun.

Beyond the rich and famous, there is no concrete information on how many people are tattooed. Wayland, Massachusetts-based Candela Corporation, a manufacturer and distributor of laser equipment designed for tattoo removal, estimates that 20 million Americans have tattoos. Yet most tattoo professionals insist it’s impossible to get an accurate number. For one thing, despite its heightened visibility and popularity, tattooing is still, at heart, an underground art. To be really thorough you’d have to count homemade and jailhouse tattoos. Even if you wanted to count only tattoos applied by pros (who typically create a design, apply it as a stencil using a solution called green soap tincture, and then color it in), there would be two obstacles: Artists lose track of how many customers they have inked, and the community of artists is growing exponentially. Margo Bennett and David Lumbert, who publish the annual A.S.C. Tattoo Directory, say the number of artists they list has increased 200 percent in the past four years. The ’96 guide lists nearly 1,600 tattoo shops in the U.S.—80 of them in Texas—yet that’s only a fraction of what’s out there. “There are some artists we don’t even know about yet,” says Lumbert. “I’d guess there are six thousand shops in the country.”

Likewise, because the tattoo business is conducted primarily in cash, pinpointing earnings is also difficult. Top artists in big cities won’t talk about their annual incomes; they’ll admit only to charging hourly rates of $100 to $200. (Of course, the math is simple enough: An artist working twenty hours a week at $100 an hour is potentially grossing six figures a year.)

More intriguing than the growth of the industry is the question of why people get tattooed in the first place. Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. Among Micronesian tribes it was a sign of initiation into adulthood, while in Polynesian societies it served a decorative purpose. Texan tribes that practiced tattooing include the Bidai, Caddo, Coahuiltecan, Comanche, Karankawa, and Wichita. Today that clannish element remains, whether you’re talking about the teardrop tattoos of prison inmates or the unifying symbols on the arms of gang members. Individuals get tattooed to remember a special event or a loved one, to be anti-social, or just for the hell of it. “They’re popular because as children we grew accustomed to seeing temporary tattoos in Cracker Jacks,” Lumbert says, noting that even today, McDonald’s and other fast-food chains give away temporary tattoos to kids. “Plus, the industry has developed to where the art is realistic. It’s not what it was in the forties and fifties, when the ink was just black, red, and green. Now the colors are beautiful, and it’s beautification of the body.”

These and other ideas were discussed in January at the Twentieth Anniversary Reunion and Tattoo Convention in Houston. Some of the heaviest of tattoo heavies showed up for the annual event, which was organized by 53-year-old Minneapolis artist Dave Yurkew and world-renowned (and now retired) San Francisco artist Lyle Tuttle, a grandfatherly man in his early sixties whose full-body tattoos were covered by long pants and a pin-striped shirt. I went to learn about the history of tattooing in Texas, how the industry has evolved over time, and I got an earful from Tuttle and Houston artist John Stuckey, a mammoth fellow also covered in tattoos.

Stuckey, who is 53, told me he learned the art of tattooing from Bill Sanders, who owned Houston’s only tattoo shop in 1961. “I went down and started mopping floors,” he recalled. “I swept and I mopped and I howdied. Sometimes I drew things for people. Finally, Bill started giving me chores like mixing ink and soldering needles. Then, after a year, he said, ‘I’m tired. You take the next five customers.’” Once Stuckey was fully trained, he left for Beaumont, part of a five-year non-compete deal he had arranged with Sanders in exchange for his apprenticeship.

In 1971 Sanders died, and his space was taken over by Yurkew, who had moved to Houston earlier that year. Around the same time, Stuckey left Beaumont, returned to Houston, and struck up a professional friendship with Yurkew—though not a partnership. “In the old days, you had the town to yourself,” Stuckey said. “There’s a lot of ego involved in any art. Twenty years ago, you were practically duty-bound to set fire to the tattoo shop of anyone who came into your territory.” Tuttle agreed: “It’s a territorial thing, dating back to when the local witch doctor was the physician, the theologian, and the tattoo artist; competition was not welcome.”

In 1976 Yurkew decided to throw the first tattoo convention in Houston to encourage solidarity in the industry. It was more than a sudden friendly gesture. Tattooing was under fire and even outlawed in some states because of concerns about hepatitis B. Back then, unlike now, tattoo needles were often used more than once, contributing to the spread of the disease. Yurkew figured the artists needed health-related information; at the least, they needed to know how to deal with the authorities. “Probably a hundred and thirty-five artists showed up down here in Texas,” Tuttle said with a laugh. “They were brave souls.”

In the years since, the number of tattoo shops in Houston alone has grown from three to fifteen, and there have also been changes in technique, equipment, and the precautions taken by artists. “It’s space-age technology now,” said Stuckey. “In the old days, we thought the deeper you put in the ink, the better it would last. We didn’t realize that medically that meant getting into larger capillaries, which moves the ink around. Now it’s probably half as painful as then.” And, because of AIDS awareness, quite a bit safer. Yes, HIV can be transmitted through shared needles, and yes, tattooing is all about needles, but these days few tattoo artists take chances: Disposable needles are the industry standard. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, there has never been a documented instance of HIV transmission through tattooing.

Not that there aren’t other health risks associated with skin art. “People can have what is called a vasovagal response to the process of tattooing,” says Donovan Sigerfoos, an Austin internist who has treated his share of tattooed patients in the past five years. “It is sort of a reaction of your involuntary nervous system to pain, and there is a lot of pain and a lot of nerve stimulation going on with a tattoo. The reaction is not the same as shock, but it does make people feel woozy and can cause them to faint.”

Though Sigerfoos isn’t aware of anyone dying from a reaction to a tattoo, he does report other risks: “There have been cases where people have had delayed allergic reactions to the ink. This can lead to chronic skin irritation, blistering, or flaking.” Hepatitis also remains a possibility. “There is a lot of risk for hepatitis C, which can be very aggressive and life threatening,” says Sigerfoos, who offers this warning for would-be tattooees: “You need to pick a place that can verify that they use disposable products and that they’re not recycling inks and needles even if they advertise that they sterilize them. Make sure it looks like a nice clean shop.”

Another potential problem is skin cancer, or melanoma, which is extremely difficult to diagnose when it occurs on a tattooed area. “If a doctor biopsies a mole with tattoo ink in it, he’s not going to be able to tell much about it,” says Sigerfoos. “Microscopic examination involves staining cells, and skin that has been inked will not pick those stains up.” If you are genetically susceptible to melanoma, he advises, it might be a good idea to consider tattoo removal. It can take as many as six rounds of laser surgery to fade your tattoos to the point of being practically invisible. “People need to consider that tattoos are, for the most part, for good,” he says. “Removal is quite expensive”—the going rate is $200 to $500 per treatment—“and your average insurance policy does not cover it. Also, it takes a lot of time and is at least as painful as getting a tattoo to begin with.”

All that was going through my mind when I finally resolved to get a second tattoo. The artist everyone in Austin recommended was 27-year-old Chris Treviño of Perfection Tattoo. I told Treviño I wanted another cow, and though he scoffed at first—not his style, he said—he eventually came around as long as I agreed to let him design the tattoo.

Treviño, like Tuttle and Stuckey and most every artist I’ve met, learned his trade through an apprenticeship. “I started hanging out in Bob Moreau’s shop in San Antonio,” he says. “The best artists learn by getting tattooed—by watching and asking questions. That’s what I did.” Yet while Treviño, who gave his first tattoo at age eighteen, was lucky enough to get hands-on training, he has no intention of passing on his knowledge. “I never will apprentice anyone,” he says. “I don’t want to create my own competition. If you train someone, then they have to be better than you—unless you’re a poor teacher.”

Before Treviño went to work on me, I took a painkiller left over from some dental work I’d had. It was my idea, but he agreed that the drug might help me to relax. It didn’t. I knew in advance that the small of the back is one of the most painful places to be tattooed (others, according to Treviño, are the rib cage, collarbone, sternum, and backs of the knees), but that’s where I wanted it. I also remembered the fear-inducing equipment. Think of bunches of cactus needles dipped in steel and soldered to the end of an electric toothbrush handle. Then imagine a low, constant buzzing emanating as needles dipped in ink pierce your skin continuously—for hours.

I have suffered all kinds of pain in my life, including a wicked root canal, but only childbirth came close to the pain of receiving this tattoo. It fluctuated from the ouch! of the outline (heavy pressure) to the yowch! of the shading (less pressure but bigger bunches of needles over a broader area). If houses could feel pain, I would now know how a wall feels upon being stripped of its paper and sanded relentlessly: My back seemed to be on fire. Speaking of childbirth, I was more than once reminded of that experience because Treviño sometimes took breaks during the process. He said he needed to focus, though to me it seemed like he was stopping for a leisurely lunch with his girlfriend and a long chat on the phone. Each time he quit, for anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, it was like a contraction had just stopped. My body tricked itself into thinking it was over. Then, like a worse, more intense contraction, he returned, starting up the machine again. My body could not believe I was just going to lie there and take it. There was a mirror to my left, but as in childbirth I chose to use it sparingly. The few times I looked I saw the swollen skin and the connect-the-drop blood patterns. After more than three hours of this, I took another painkiller, again to little avail.

Once Treviño had completed my tattoo—a cow’s head above a banner proclaiming “Holy Cow!”—he applied a salve and told me to expect some pain, followed in a week by a scab and then some itching. The tattoo was much larger than I had originally envisioned it; it was even larger than the stencil he had applied in advance. Yet while it might seem strange to some people, Treviño told me it was hardly the most unusual tattoo he has done: Once, he inked a Disney character engaged in a lewd act, though the person has since had it covered with another tattoo.

I asked Treviño how he feels about the newfound respectability of tattoos. He replied that he hasn’t changed the way he works. He’ll still do any design “unless it’s racist.” There are still only two areas of the body he won’t tattoo: genitalia and faces. “I don’t need the money that bad,” he insists. But he admits to being a little sorry that the stereotype of the tattooed rebel has faded a bit. “I don’t want everyone to have a tattoo,” he says. “I don’t think everyone needs one. Besides, if everyone had one, they wouldn’t be that special anymore.”

Spike Gillespie writes a weekly column distributed by the Prodigy online network.