DENNIS COCKELL, a tattooist since 1970, has never known a year like it. London's best known 'skin artist', as they are now fashionably called, has had his busiest year ever, tattooing rock stars, shop assistants and even the odd businessman. In 1992, having your own tattoo is incredibly cool.

That's fine as long as you still think it is cool a year - or 20 years - from now. Once you have acquired a tattoo, you are stuck with it, unless you have the money for a rather expensive operation (which will still leave a scar).

The option increasingly chosen by tattoo enthusiasts is the temporary self-applied transfer tattoo, which wears off after a few days.

Temporary tattoos have come a long way from their origins as transfers in bubblegum packets. These days you can find them in high-street stores, even Boots.

'Fake tattoos can look very real. They've managed to get the colours just right,' says Mr Cockell. He sometimes suggests unsure customers try wearing one to get used to the idea. Body Art, a temporary tattoo company, sells 80 per cent of its products to young women. The best-selling design is a red rose.

Recently fashion designers have used fake tattoos on the catwalks: at Dolce e Gabbana in Milan this season and at Comme des Garcons in Paris last March. In New York, Calvin Klein has produced a range of tights with tattoo designs on them.

In the world of rock'n'roll, tattoos are enjoying an extraordinary renaissance, although some might say they never went away. Cher is a self-confessed tattoo addict and at the last count had six. Stephanie Seymour, a model and girlfriend of the rock star Axl Rose, has a ring of flowers tattooed around her ankle, something other models are copying. Niki Taylor, one of the new breed of international cover girls, has a dolphin tattooed on her ankle and a sun on her foot.

Mr Cockell says: 'The model and rock-star set is bringing the tattooing trend into the public eye. I get everyone, from bank clerks and executives to people in the music business. This morning I tattooed someone from the BBC.'

Mr Cockell recently tattooed Vic Reeves with an anchor on his upper arm. He also did the celebrated design on Paula Yates's arm.

Once upon a time, tattoos were the art of the underground. In some states in the US, including, surprisingly, New York City, they remain illegal. And they are still associated with a seedy image, with Hell's Angels, roughnecks, drunken sailors, skinheads. But the macho image is waning, as more and more young women make up the 'skin art' trade.

Captain Cook is thought to have introduced tattoos to the West in the 18th century after his Pacific trips. On the Marquesas Islands, they were drawn (and also worn) by women while, for men, they were the ultimate status symbol: no self-respecting male would contemplate marriage without a fully decorated body. The pain was part of the process of proving one's manhood.

James Bullen, a 26-year-old textile designer, who had a scorpion tattooed on to the top of his arm last summer, says the process does hurt. 'It was really painful, then it bled for about a month afterwards until a scab formed and eventually healed over.'

Despite the pain, he likes to recall his experience and make his friends squirm. Every time he walks past the tattooist in Kensington Market, west London, he is tempted to have a second one.

Tattoos still provoke strong

reactions, even among the young and fashionable. 'People are becoming sicker and more into body mutilation,' says Samson Soboye, 27, a fashion student at Central Saint Martin's School of Art. 'I think they look vile and painful. I wonder what makes people inflict that kind of agony on themselves. Tattoos are on a par with nipple piercing.'

Most tattoos are far from

subtle. Men tend towards designs that would not look out of place on any Heavy Metal record cover. Women ask for hearts, butterflies, suns, flowers and Chinese characters - all a bit twee.

Rachel Bracken, 23, has wanted a tattoo for three years and now feels the time is right. She and a friend once drew tattoos on each other with spirit markers, and she is designing her own. 'I'm sure most people walk in and just pick something off the wall. But I couldn't do that - it wouldn't mean anything to me.

'I've thought about this for a long time now and have decided on a symbol with the sun, moon, stars and water. It will be colourful, symbolic to me, and ties in with my birth sign - Cancer.'

Ms Bracken has no fears about tattooing and will have her design on her shoulder, so it can be easily covered. 'I've wanted one for so long now that I have no doubts whatsoever. This is not a fad.'

She admitted, though: 'I would never have one on my arm. I like that part of me to remain clean. I'd feel somehow invaded because I wouldn't be able to escape it. At least one on my shoulder will be out of my sight most of the time.'

Of course, there can be a more practical side to tattooing. An eyeliner tattoo would save time on the morning make-up routine; or Seventies-style tattooed eyebrows would mean you could forget about plucking for ever. Beatrice Dalle even had a beauty spot tattooed just above her lip.

Temporary tattoos, however, open up all sorts of new opportunities. At American Retro, the London retailer, the designs include everything from traditional daggers, skulls and roses to the assembled cast of Star Trek. Beam me up to that tattooist, Scotty]

(Photograph omitted)