KEITH HEPPLE, an English fashion stylist, is casting for a swimwear shoot at a model agency in Los Angeles. An all-Californian girl comes into the room. She looks great in a swimsuit, but there is a problem: she has a rose tattoo visible just next to her bikini line.

Hepple is not surprised. 'Models have gone crazy for tattoos,' he says. 'But you have to be careful that the tattoo isn't in a prominent place, particularly if you're shooting swimwear or lingerie.'

Tattoos have caught on in a big way as a fashion accessory. In Los Angeles, everyone has one or is thinking of having one. Tattoos come out in the open on the beach: biceps chiselled with biker insignia, shoulders covered with Valentines, backs decorated with fantasy figures. The tattoos pictured here were all photographed on Venice beach, just outside Los Angeles.

Never mind the advice of doctors who warn that tattoos are permanent - all the techniques for removing them leave some scarring. The cautious apply temporary tattoos, which are showerproof and fade gradually over several days.

So why this extraordinary enthusiasm for tattoos on both sides of the Atlantic? Traditionally, they were a display of masculinity in working-class Britain. Today women favour them just as much as men. For many people, the tattoo is a unique stamp of identity, a means of individual self-expression in an age of conformity.

The influence of Hollywood and the rock and fashion worlds are also part of the story. Bruce Willis, who appeared on Michael Aspel's chat show last Sunday to plug the new Planet Hollywood restaurant, made a big show of his new acquisition: a Planet Hollywood tattoo on his chest, presumably temporary, turning his body into a walking advertisement. Madonna and her antithesis - Roseanne Arnold - both sport them. So does Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Lenny Kravitz and Johnny Depp. In Britain, the most publicly displayed tattoo is a fish on the TV presenter Paula Yates's shoulder.

Fashion models tend to follow the lead of Stephanie Seymour, the supermodel and former girlfriend of the rock star Axl Rose; she has a garland tattooed around her ankle. Carrie Otis has an eagle on her arm, while Christy Turlington prefers a discreet rose with her boyfriend's initials on her ankle. And Beverley Peele has a heart emblazoned on her bottom - at least it doesn't get in the way of a swimwear shoot.

(Photographs omitted)