Having coffee with Nikole Lowe involves running the gauntlet of stares and whispers. "Isn't that the girl off the telly?" asks the barista in an East London cafe.

Later, as we make our way to Lowe's gloriously overdone studio, a couple of parking wardens point and wave. Learning to deal with public attention is something the former Aucklander is getting a little better at.

Two years ago Lowe was shunted from obscurity into the celebrity queue after appearing on London Ink, a reality television show set in a tattoo studio, shown in New Zealand on the Discovery Channel.

In less than a decade, she's become one of Britain's most sought-after tattoo artists, with clients waiting for up to two years to have their bodies decorated by her. When the producers of London Ink, a spin-off of the popular Los Angeles and Miami programmes, sought an artist with an additional X chromosome to act as a foil to the three male stars, they relentlessly pursued Lowe.

"To be honest, I wasn't terribly keen," she admits. "I hadn't really paid much attention to the American shows and didn't fancy having my life exposed in that way." But then Louis Molloy - famous for tattooing the crucifix on footballer David Beckham's back - came calling, and Lowe began to take the offer seriously. "Louis is a bit of a legend in the business, and you don't ignore his phone calls. I'd previously worked with Phil, one of the guys who'd been approached, so we went out for dinner, drank a bit too much and basically dared each other to do it."

The first series, in 2007, was shot over six weeks at a North London tattoo studio. Lowe's star was immediately in the ascendant. "When it first aired, it was weird to see pictures of myself on billboards around town and to have people do a double-take when they saw me on the Tube. But I was more concerned about how I came across: it's so awkward to watch yourself on TV. I would cringe and go, 'oh my God, did I just say that? What an idiot!'

By the second series, Lowe had earned a sizeable following for her stylised Japanese designs, which sit at the more feminine end of the spectrum and feature delicate petals and tendrils, blood-red peonies and golden koi carp. "I became known as the koi carp girl. They all end up looking the same and I can't tell you how sick I am of doing them." Fortunately, Lowe doesn't have to any more.

Six months ago, she opened her own studio, Good Times Tattoo, in the hip suburb of Shoreditch. The name was inspired by her love of a good knees-up. But wasn't it a brave - not to mention foolhardy - move to launch a business during one of the worst recessions in recent memory? Apparently not. "The economic situation actually worked in my favour, because I wouldn't have been able to get this place if they hadn't dropped the rent."

As it happens, Lowe was given a three-month rent holiday on the former office above a Vietnamese restaurant. The 37-year-old filled her new studio with an eclectic collection of objects she found on eBay, such as a Hindu shrine, a horn section and a slightly macabre grouping of animal skulls. It's what London's Time Out magazine recently said "exudes a zen-like calm. It's spacious, light and sophisticated - the opposite of stereotypical crammed and garish studios".

Lowe didn't intend to have an all-female staff but says friends have morphed into employees, including her American flatmate and well-known British tattooist Saira Hunjan, whose clients include model Kate Moss and actress Sadie Frost, former wife of Jude Law.

Frost, it turns out, was actually in the studio the other night getting more body art - but Lowe won't divulge any details. Lowe has inked the bodies of Boy George, Adam Ant and Australian singer Daniel Johns, but celebrity work isn't what motivates her. "The only thing I'm interested in is doing work that interests me, with great clients and doing a bloody good job."

Lowe is smaller than she appears on screen and has startling blue eyes, orbited by lots of dark eye-shadow. Despite a decade in the English capital, her Kiwi accent remains untamed and she has a strange, magnetic quality that makes you believe life's more fun when you're with her.

On the day we meet, her own inked credentials are concealed by tiny black jeans and a cardigan but she obligingly whips off the knitwear to show me some of her favourite artwork. Don't ask how many tattoos she has - she can't remember - but the only parts of her body not adorned are her breasts, face and neck.

"Tattoos are like the diary of my life - every one is a memory of what was going on at that particular time. I never intended to be heavily tattooed but part of the addiction is getting rid of skin. I think they're all beautiful." She's particularly proud of her "sleeves" (fully covered arms) that feature art by friends such as Switzerland's Filip Leu, widely considered to be one of the world's best tattooists.

Lowe admits her career path was an odd choice for someone who grew up in a farming family where "tattoo" was considered a bad word. "My parents are pretty conservative and they freaked out when my older sister gave herself a DIY tattoo. They spent a lot of money getting rid of it." The youngest of three siblings, Lowe's Silverdale childhood was idyllic ("my pet lamb won the best coat prize one year"), while her teenage years were an odd hybrid of tough tomboy and surfer chick. Having set her sights on a musical career, she spent many weekends gigging around Auckland with her covers band, Shotgun, but an artistic future was also on her mind.

However, when a "particularly sadistic" art teacher awarded Lowe a bad mark for a project, her mother yanked her out of school. "Mum marched down to Orewa College, told the teacher she was a cow and made me leave school." Mindless office work paid the bills until Lowe stumbled into tattooing, care of a friend who suggested she show her sketches to late tattooist Phil Matthias, then running a studio called Dermographic in Auckland's College Hill. "I was a nervous 18-year-old trying to flog my designs to Phil, this tough 35-year-old biker; it was pretty intimidating."

Not only did Lowe earn an apprenticeship, she also found a partner, ending up in a five-year relationship with Matthias, who was killed in a car accident a few years ago. "Phil was amazing - he taught me everything he knew. At the time, I was only one of three women tattooists in New Zealand and it was hard to break into the boys' club. They would often tell me I'd never be any good and refuse to help me."

When the relationship with Matthias ended, Lowe moved around several Auckland studios before a friend asked her to join him in London. "I told him I would if he got me a job, which he did, so I packed up my life and bought a one-way ticket." She spent the next four years travelling and fighting her way into the London sub-culture. But it took a tattoo convention in Barcelona to set her on her current path.

"That convention exposed me to so much more than I had experienced in New Zealand - things like different needle groups and techniques. I consciously made the decision to work on a particular style, which is how I ended up being known for my floral designs and Japanese motifs." While the world of reality TV has been quick to embrace Lowe, it hasn't been an entirely easy run. There was the time, for example, a former boss threatened to chop off her hands. It had something to do with defecting to a rival studio. She's not keen to elaborate, but suffice to say the threat of a burly British bloke doing unspeakable things to her extremities was "a pretty scary time".

Nor is she particularly enamoured with her love life, saying she hasn't been on a date in four years. "I think the tattoos scare some guys because they don't really approach me any more. But, you know, I've got the studio and a fantastic life, so I'm not losing sleep over it." She's not a fan of making plans but admits to one day wanting to buy her family's Silverdale farm, north of Auckland.

"I'm not sure if I would ever live there full-time but I do miss the sea views and the serenity. That's why I have to live near a park in London - it's the only thing that keeps this country girl sane..."