Ellen Harris grew up in stricter times. There was a rule about what petticoats were acceptable to wear. Mascara was worn just on the top eyelashes. "Only tarts wore mascara on the bottom lashes," says Harris. And if you did not have the right clothes, you certainly would not go to the dance.

Last December, Harris did something that broke all the rules. At age 71, the Ngaruawahia grandmother got her first tattoo. The intertwined initials of her three children - KSS - now snake across the skin between her breasts in light-blue ink.

Getting a tattoo has been on Harris' mind for a while. One day, she says, she said to herself "damn it" and marched into her local tattoo shop.

Harris says she would never have gone for something "dragony". Her tattoo is unique. "My kids are my life. It's something that means so much to me."

The 25 minutes she spent in the chair felt like 25 years. She could barely stand the pain but once the needle had started there was no turning back. The young male tattooist was impressed at how she handled the ordeal. "He didn't realise old ladies are stubborn and don't like to cry," says Harris.

So it's no longer rebellious youths, sailors and tribal elders getting inked. Grandmothers, lawyers, accountants and police officers are, too. Tattoos have gone mainstream. Brent Taylor, organiser of this month's New Zealand Tattoo and Art Festival estimates one in four New Zealanders has a tattoo.

Taylor is expecting thousands of people from all walks of life at the festival in New Plymouth on November 27 and 28. And with more than 140 tattooists - or tattoo artists, as they're called these days - from New Zealand and around the world on hand, Taylor expects plenty of new tattoos to be done by the end of the festival.

While many tattoos are done on the spur of the moment - singer Gin Wigmore got her colourful upper arm design on a whim while on holiday in Bali - most tattooists encourage people to think about it long and hard.

Former All Black Jonah Lomu's ink work is well considered. He travels all the way to Wales to be inked by his tattooist of choice, Lee Clements, whom Lomu first met when playing for Cardiff.

While Lomu heads to the other side of the world, other All Blacks go south, favouring Otautahi Tattoo in Christchurch. Jimmy Cowan, Neemia Tialata and others have popped into the studio during their downtime for some permanent art. Frazer Crump is not too sure how his tattoo shop became the All Blacks studio of choice.

"A lot of it was jumping on Google," he says. It was also helped by recommendations from workers at the hotel where the rugby players stay. "We've tattooed nearly every staff member of the Millennium Hotel," says Crump.

Last year Cowan spent two eight-hour days getting a tribal design on his upper arm and shoulder. Tialata had his intricate right forearm design done at Otautahi, which took 20 hours over three days to complete. Crump refuses to reveal the meanings of the All Blacks' tattoos.

"I know why and they know why. I wouldn't want to elaborate because I know their tattoos are personal," he says.

Sporting heroes and musicians are often the inspiration for young people to come in asking for tattoos. Crump discourages them from getting copycat designs.

"You don't want to put tattoos on their bodies unless they're 100 per cent sure they want us to go through with it," says Crump.

In New Zealand it is legal to get a tattoo at 16 with parental permission but Otautahi Tattoo has a minimum age limit of 18.

In 2½ years of business, a studio customer has yet to come back and ask for a tattoo to be changed, but many people turn up, especially during the holidays, asking for fix-it jobs on home tattoos gone wrong.

Portraits are particularly problematic. Recently a young father had a picture of his daughter tattooed on him by a friend. One of her eyes was freakishly larger than the other. It had to be covered up with a solid design.

Crump says "back-yard cowboys" end up with some shocking results. Home tattoo kits are readily available on TradeMe for $90, although because of a health warning from Environment Risk Management Authority, TradeMe has suspended the sale of inks with the kits. As well as injecting the body with potentially dangerous substances, home tattooing is not as hygienic as a commercial studio environment and the risk of infection is higher.

Just how easy a problem can occur when people trust their mates to create a tattoo was illustrated last month when a man was charged in Queensland for assault occasioning bodily harm after tattooing an unwanted 40cm penis on his friend's back.

Apart from the predictable clientele, Crump has noticed an increase in the number of babyboomers wanting tattoos. Between five and 10 come in each week, he says.

"People you wouldn't expect are coming through the door with their suit and the briefcase," says Crump. The stigma that was once attached to having a tattoo is fading. "It's a form of self-expression, it's cultural, it's who you are."

Craig Myers has a personal tattoo to record a significant time in his life. The sales rep from Ngahinapouri, Waikato, suffered a heart attack 11 years ago at the age of 32. He had a double bypass operation to save his life and has the scar up his chest to prove it.

To mark this life-changing event he got a tattoo - a zip on top of the scar and a picture of a metal plate with the inscription of the date of the surgery, the surgeon's name, the grim reaper and an hourglass. Ironically, the surgeon died of a heart attack and never saw the artwork that now graces his patient's chest.

Myers, who has two other tattoos, has a warning for anyone considering following his lead. Tattooing scar tissue really hurts, he says. "It felt like it was on fire."

And Myers' wife is not a fan of the tattoo because it serves as a reminder of just how close she came to losing him.

Tattoo artist Dan Smith thinks tattooing is a great way to document life. "It's cool to see so many memories that show where I've been," says Smith, who has become an international star in the tattoo world.

Smith grew up in West Auckland and now lives in Los Angeles, where he works at Hollywood's High Voltage Tattoo Shop. He stars in the reality television show LA Ink alongside his colleague and friend Kat Von D, well-known for inking celebs like Lady Gaga, Jared Leto and Eve, and making the gossip rags when she started dating Sandra Bullock's love-rat ex, Jesse James.

Smith is coming home for the tattoo festival and his skills are in demand. He has already received more than 100 emails from people requesting tattoos.

When the Herald on Sunday spoke to Smith he had just finished a day in a recording studio laying down vocals for an album with his band The Dear and Departed. As a musician as well as a tattooist, he has ended up tattooing a number of other musicians from Californian bands such as AFI and Avenged Sevenfold.

One of his most stressful tattooing experiences was inking Pete Wentz backstage. The Fall Out Boy bassist lost a bet with his friend Gabe Saporta of Cobra Starship. Wentz now has a portrait of Saporta on his leg with the words "Gabey Baby Made Me Go Bad", drawn by Smith.

When Smith, now 30, first got a tattoo as a 16-year-old he felt he was living on the edge. "We were most definitely outcasts and trying to find a community where we fitted in."

Since then, Smith says tattooing has become a lot more popular and widely accepted. He denies the art form has lost its attraction by becoming mainstream because he relies on its popularity for his job.

"There's a tattoo out there for everybody," he says.

Smith's first tattoo, a stick man associated with the American punk band The Descedents, was done by Dean Parkin of Auckland's Sacred Tattoo.

Smith ended up striking up a friend-ship with Parkin and learned his craft from him. "He's my hero," says Smith. There is no official training to become a tattooist.

The saying goes that if you walk into a tattoo studio off the street and get in the chair straight away you have gone to the wrong place. At Sacred Tattoo, Parkin takes bookings only twice a year and customers wait months to get an appointment. This has two advantages. The customer is getting a tattoo by one of the best artists in town and has plenty of time to mull over whether they truly want the tattoo. No rash decisions.

Ollie Ward, a 22-year-old retail assistant from Mt Eden, is lying back on a plastic covered bench in Sacred Tattoo bracing himself for a third sitting on his shoulder tattoo that Parkin started at the beginning of last year. "That's what happens when you want the best to do it," says Ward.

Parkin's tool buzzes loudly, drowning out the heavy rock music playing in the shop as seven tiny needles hammer in and out of Ward's skin. Parkin regularly wipes away smudges of ink and blood with a paper towel.

Ward has chosen an intricate design of chubby cherubs on blackened cloud holding different weapons on each other. He had the idea of the subject matter and got local graffiti artist Elliot "Deus" Stewart to draw the design.

This is Ward's third tattoo and it does not have any particular meaning. He just likes it. Ward's first tattoo had more significance. He had his family name tattooed down his side in large cursive script: "My parents don't like tattoos, but they couldn't be upset at that."

For his second tattoo, Ward took a risk and let his friend ink roses on his back. Ward was pleasantly surprised. "I knew he was a talented artist, but I didn't know how he would go with a tattoo gun."

Ward has been bitten by the in-famous tattoo bug and does not see any reason to stop. "They are socially acceptable now. In our generation, everyone has one."

The only thing holding Ward back is the cost. At $180 an hour, Parkin's services add up. "It's an expensive habit. I'm always keen for more," says Ward.

But not all tattoo customers are left quite so contented. Dr Michael Lamont, CEO of Mangere Community Health Trust, sees the dark side of tattoos. When the excitement wears off, values change and regret sets in people make appalling attempts at removing their permanent markings.

Lamont has seen people who have tried to burn their tattoos off with cigarettes or scratch them out. Some years ago a man was peddling a removal system around South Auckland. He filled a tattoo machine with a combination of acids leaving people with horrendous acid burns.

Since 1999 the trust has run a tattoo removal service designed at giving affordable treatment. Lamont says the service has changed thousands of people's lives. One ex-gang member with insignia tattooed on his face and neck got his first legitimate job aged 38 after having his markings removed.

A woman who was gang raped as a teenager and whose attackers tattooed their initials on her arm found new strength after having those tattoos erased. She went on to become a successful social worker.

The prices are so cheap - free for school students, $30 for WINZ beneficiaries and $110 user pays - that people have come from Australia to have their tattoos removed.

But it's not a desirable option for anyone thinking they might flirt with a tattoo and later have it removed. Tattoos are blasted with a high- pressure laser that breaks up the ink particle so that white blood cells can absorb it and carry it away. Depending on the size and amount of the ink in the tattoo, it takes several sessions. The process is painful, likened to hot fat splattering on the skin.

Lamont warns people to think long and hard about going under the inky needle: "Most of us make choices on the day. When you make a choice to get a tattoo it's there for life. This is one of the few things that is going to be with you forever."