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Bourgeois body art: Tattoos have become a must-have for the middle-classes

As the UK's biggest convention begins, John Walsh explains how they got under their skin

Helen Mirren's had one for years. Daniel Craig has a Peruvian condor on his right shoulder. Samantha Cameron's got a dolphin just below her shapely ankle. Jude Law has a circle of ants on his inside right arm. Anna Kournikova's got a lovely sun symbol on her back, just above the knicker line (though, when asked about it, she told the press it was "a heat patch".) Felicity Kendal, aged 64, recently upset a Spectator writer when she announced she'd had a moon and two feathers emblazoned on her leg (he hinted darkly that this indicated "a desire to hold desperately on to youth").

Tattoos. They're everywhere. Hardly a day goes by without someone in the public eye proudly revealing the Hindu love chant inscribed on their upper thigh or a Masonic symbol circling their navel. The coolest model around, Freja Beha Erichsen (she's had three Vogue covers already this year) sports 15 tattoos on her lissom six-foot frame – including a lightning bolt that starts around her fifth rib and heads south. Last week Daniel Radcliffe voiced his relief that, now he's finished filming Harry Potter and is released from contractual restraints, he can go out and get tattoos all over his body. Last month Jennifer Aniston, America's perennial girl-next-door (now 42) had the name of her deceased Welsh corgi-terrier, Norman, scratched onto her right foot.

At civilian level too, we could be forgiven for wondering what's going on. Why have both my lawyer friend Dan's two sons (18 and 20) suddenly gone in for those spikily tribal tattoos you associate with Tahiti and Mike Tyson's face? How come the bloke in the bank, advising me about buildings insurance, has a purple gecko crawling under his Tissot wristwatch? And what's the story behind the lady in the Dulwich sweetshop who has a brace of angel's wings and the word REDEMPTION tattooed in Gothic script across her upper sternum?

"Tattooing is definitely getting more middle-class," says Sion Smith, editor of Skin Deep, Britain's best-selling tattoo magazine, which sells 20,000 in the UK and 46,000 internationally every month. "Yes, it's mostly bought by people who drive forklift trucks and say, 'Hey look at my tattoo.' But the most interesting letters we get are from surgeons who say, 'I've been living for five years with this huge tattoo on my back and no one knows, I'd like to show it to you.' I was at a wedding last month at which the vicar had a tattoo. As for the full-arm tattoos, we get pictures coming in on headed paper from Barclays and HSBC. Bank officials – they're the kind of people who are getting them done now."

The shift in the cultural apprehension of tattoos is a relatively recent phenomenon. Tattoos were known as "chav stamps" – ineradicable physical evidence that the wearer was a member of the no-taste working classes. Tattoos worn by ladies are called "tramp stamps" in America, and "slag-tags" by censorious folk over here. It's as though the simple act of having a mark on your skin – any mark – makes you a vulgarian. When heroic British males such as Robbie Williams and David Beckham began to acquire multiple inkings on their arms and backs in the 1990s, you could hear middle-class mutterings of "Breeding will out".

Footballers, cricketers, singers, actors and TV stars all started to adopt biker-chic illustrations on their flesh. It didn't make tattoos seem classy; but it made them seem cool. When Amy Winehouse appeared, the trashy girls tattooed on her arms were the quintessence of British proletarian sauciness, like Donald McGill's bathing beauties. When Vogue published an article in 2008 suggesting that tattoos were becoming ubiquitous and unstoppable among the posher classes – revealing, inter alia, that Emma Parker Bowles has a kitten tattooed on her bottom, and the artist Rachel Feinstein has a vagina snugly inked into her armpit – you just knew the phenomenon was starting to move upmarket. And when in 2010 the new British prime minister's wife started showing off her epidermal porpoise, it became hard to convince the world that tattoos are still the province of criminals, sailors and white van drivers.

The history of the tattoo is more complex and polycultural than you'd think, however.

From Siberia to Italy, from Egypt to Japan, as much as 5,000 years ago, mummified corpses have been found with dots, dashes and geometric patterns inked on their skin (but no rudimentary hearts or anchors, sadly, nor banners carrying the words "Mum" or "Born to Raise Hell".)

It's generally held that the Polynesians perfected the most complex and accomplished tattoos of the ancient world. The word tattoo comes from Tahiti and entered the English language in the captain's log on Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour: "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible... As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their lifetimes."

If only. But so many sailors returned to England bearing tattoos, so many explorers came home with Polynesian tribesmen, to exhibit them at fairs as "painted savages", that a counter-Enlightenment vogue for self-inked adornment began. By the 1860s, most British ports could boast at least one professional tattooist. It was a vogue to which even royalty became attracted. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, later to ascend the throne as Edward VII, extended his brawny arm and allowed a lowly commoner with needles and black ink to print a Jerusalem Cross on his right arm. Soon everyone was showing off their tats. His sons, the Dukes of Clarence and York, got themselves tattooed, 20 years later, by the Japanese maestro Hori Chiyo.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have had an anchor tattooed on his arm, and his mother a snake tattoo around her wrist (but concealed by a special bracelet); but for most of the 20th century, the tattoo was mostly the mark of lowlifes, footpads, sentimental matelots, circus sideshow folk, prisoners anxious to assert their identity, and gangsters avid to announce their loyalty.

"There's two types of tattooed people," says Smith. "The people who've got one small one, and that's enough for them, and it lasts for ever and they pretty much forget about it. And the other people, those of us who think, 'I like this, I'll build on it,' and become serious collectors. You get into the artists and know who they are, and you want to be tattooed by a certain person, as opposed to whatever's near you."

Aficionados will get the chance to be inked by the stars when Tattoo Jam 2011, the fourth annual convention of the inking fraternity, opens its doors tomorrow. From Friday to Sunday, 300 internationally renowned tattoo artistes will bring their inks, brushes, buzzing needles and blood-stanchers to set up for business in the Lazarus Exhibition Hall at Doncaster Racetrack.

Serious tattoo fans can book a session with their favourite – with Brendan Mudd, for instance, who specialises in alarmingly vivid faces, from Hannibal Lecter to the Virgin Mary, or Boff Konkerz, who does terrific roses, conch shells and flames. "Half the artists are flown in from Europe and the States," says Smith, "and the other half are British. It gives people a chance to meet these artists, instead of saving up to visit them in Las Vegas or Stockholm. Each artist has their own booth, and is vetted for health and safety standards. Then on Saturday morning, the doors open and the public streams in. Either you'll have looked at the artists list, got in touch with them and booked your appointment, or" [his voice takes on a hint of sarcasm] "you'll just swan in there, looking for someone at a stall who's not doing anything..."

Smith has had four tattoos done (upper arms, back and shoulders) and is very keen on a Montreal-based artist called Yann Black, who works under the appealing nom de guerre of Your Meat Is Mine. Mr Black's designs resemble, at their best, drawings by Miro and Picasso; and at their worst, psychotic scribbles (look at www.yourmeatismine.com).

Tattoo parlours used to be dingy, badly-lit establishments, populated by scary-looking bikers and friends of the management with bald heads and criminal records. Now they're much more up-scale. "There've been TV shows in America called LA Ink and Miami Ink which showed tattooing in very posh studios," says Smith. "Once the public saw they were nice, friendly places, not dark hideouts, they felt that getting a tattoo was suddenly a possibility. British parlours are now much nicer places – they've cleaned up much the same as high-street bookmakers. It's just better for business."

Everyone will tell you how ill-advised it is to have your beloved's name inscribed on your body. It means the relationship will almost certainly go wrong, leaving you with an indelible memento which could easily disillusion future partners. Jude Law must regret the time and pain he spent having "You came along to turn on everything, Sexy Sadie" tattooed on his left arm. (And the English actor Tom Hardy has the words "Till I die SW" on his abdomen, just above the waistband. SW was his wife Sarah Ward. He's now engaged to the actress Charlotte Riley. Whoops.) But otherwise, the only thing for the newly tattoo-bound to avoid is being a cheapskate. If you're going to do it, do it properly.

"If you turned up at work tomorrow with a tattoo," says Smith, "some of your colleagues might be shocked. But if you went swimming tomorrow and showed one off, I don't think anyone would say anything. It will come down to how good your tattoo is." You have to choose your parlour, choose your artist carefully from close perusal of his, or her, "flash racks" or displays of work. And be prepared to shell out. "You're looking at between £60 and £100 an hour, that's a rough ball-park." If you get a design that's the size and shape of your upper arm, it could take between three and seven hours. That's up to £700 for a full-arm tattoo. A middle-class fee for a newly middle-class affectation. I'm surprised it's not in guineas.

"Put it this way," says Smith. "If you've got a tiny horseshoe the size of a 50p piece on your ankle, then people may label you, unfairly, as cheap. But if you have a back piece done, which has obviously taken someone days and cost you hundreds or thousands of pounds, people will be awestruck. They'll say, 'I think I'll get one of them, because it's a perfectly formed piece of art.'" Indeed. Go for it, chaps. Don't think – get some ink.