WHEN the teen pin-up Howard Donald from the band Take That - the Bay City Rollers of the Nineties - appears in prepubescent magazines such as Smash Hits or Fast Forward with a couple of inches of steel through his left nipple, you know that body piercing has become about as risque as growing your hair long or having a tattoo on your buttock.

In the early Eighties, naughty boys put gold studs in their ears, but when George Michael wore large hoops through both lobes during Wham] concerts, the idea somehow lost its James Dean appeal. Next came tattoos, every supermodel's favourite fashion accessory - a butterfly on the hip or a chain of roses around the wrist. But since Paula Yates regularly shows hers on The Big Breakfast, they too have lost their lure as a rebellious fashion statement.

Now body piercing, originally associated with the gay and S/M scene, has hit the mainstream. It features in Madonna's book Sex, is a fashion statement for Axl Rose and the body adornment of every new age traveller.

Mark Garbs, 28, who runs a clothes shop in Brighton, recently had the cartilage at the back of his ear pierced. 'It was a hell of a lot more painful than having the others done,' he says. Both his nipples and his navel are pierced with large metal rings; and a long bolt with two balls at each end - called an ampallang - runs through the end of his penis.

'That wasn't too bad,' insists Mark. 'It was the clamp on the end when I had it done that made it more painful than anything else; the piercing itself wasn't painful.' He says the technique originated in China, where some women claimed that a pierced lover gave them greater satisfaction.

'Piercing has long been associated with tribalism in Indonesia or South America, but it came to Britain about 100 years ago,' says Mark. 'Prince Albert allegedly had a ring through his penis so he could tie it to his leg to prevent embarrassing situations.'

'It became part of the S/M scene because pain and pleasure are so closely linked, and then, like many avant-garde fashions, it filtered through the gay scene and into the mainstream.'

Teena Maree, 27, from Clerkenwell, London, has run a piercing business, Into You, for four years. 'There has been such a resurgence in piercing that I can't believe my luck,' she says. 'I have had everyone in here. In this business you can't judge a book by its cover. Generally, my clients are from 25 to 35, fashion-oriented, and may be gay.

'But my youngest is 18 and my oldest is 78, and I have had an increasing number of boys from the City coming in, who will have their nipples pierced under their suits or their penises done for their wives or girlfriends. Most of them do it because they have to conform so much on

the exterior and it's a way of expressing themselves on the inside. Also, it's a way of improving their sex lives.'

Teena, who has 23 rings and bolts through her body, charges between pounds 4 and pounds 50 per piercing, depending on the complexity of the piercing and the amount of gold and silver used. She believes the popularity of body piercing has grown because people have tired of other forms of body decoration. 'It requires a lot more commitment than tattooing. People are also seeking a way of identifying with and being part of a culture which, the more visible it becomes, the less taboo it is. But there are some who are real size queens, showing off about having the biggest rings and the largest piece of body adornment. I think that's overdoing it, personally.'

Teena says that recently customers have become more adventurous. 'Because of the new popularity, visual stuff is becoming more fashionable - 'facial stuff': eyebrows, navels and nipples.

David, an air steward, had his nipples pierced 10 years ago. 'I did it purely for fashion - it was very trendy in the States around that time. Since then I've had a Prince Albert.' He says that although the penis piercing hurt, it healed in about three weeks. 'Urine is like a disinfectant and my penis healed much more quickly than my ears. They went septic because I had to take the ear-rings out at work.'

David's employers and colleagues do not know about his body piercing. 'It's all hidden under my clothes, and what they don't know won't hurt them. We have a ruling about tattoos - they don't matter as long as they are not on display, and I suppose the same goes for rings in your tits.'

James Belger, art editor of Vogue, pierced her nose because she 'ran out of ear space', but says she is not tempted to go any further. 'I'm a diabetic and it's more likely to get infected if I have anything else done.

'Pierced nipples and phalluses are a bit freakish, but I think if I was in bed with a man with pierced nipples I would find it a bit of a turn on, although the idea of a chain joining them together is not that erotic.'

Practitioners say that body piercing is no more dangerous than having ears pierced or getting a tattoo, as long as clean needles are used and the patient looks after the area correctly.

Douglas Murray, honorary secretary of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons, says he has not treated anyone with injuries from body piercing. But he thinks it is dangerous to puncture sensitive organs. 'It must be dangerous to pierce organs with a lot of blood and I should imagine that scarring would interfere with the functions of the penis. There would be bad scarring in some patients, not because the piercing was done badly, but because there are some people who scar badly, developing keloids, or large scarred areas that are difficult to treat. It must also be difficult for women with pierced nipples to breast- feed.'

Michael, 46, a former religious education and classics teacher at a girls' convent school, has had his nose, navel, tongue and four parts of his genitals pierced in the past seven months. He said it was not dangerous or painful 'as long as the person with the needle knows what they are doing'.

'There is nothing frightening or that painful about piercing. I originally went in to have my nipples done and ended up with doing the whole lot. I had only ever had my ear pierced before. It's addictive.'

Michael has recently started piercing people in their homes and is hoping, with a friend, to open a piercing salon in Brighton.

'My oldest customer is a 60-year-old man who wanted a Prince Albert done. His wife had died and he had just met a middle-aged woman who was pierced and wanted to do it for her,' he says.

'Since I've been pierced my whole perception of my body has changed. I now don't care that I'm not Arnie Schwarzenegger; the experience has been liberating.

'It's the fashion accessory at the moment. I've been doing secretaries and housewives; anyone from dukes to dustmen, and professionals in suits. You really have no idea who is pierced, because it's all hidden under their clothes. I mean, have you looked at your boss recently?'

Jim White is away.

(Photographs omitted)