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Kate Wilder, a cosmetologist, got her first tattoo when she was 18. Penny Ferry, a retired retailer, got hers when she was 67.

Neither woman was a sailor out on a bender, as might fit the old tattoo mythology, although Wilder's 12 tattoos now include an anchor as a nod to her Navy grandfather.

Ferry has only one, a dragonfly on her wrist, in memory of her daughter, Morgan, who died of cancer at age 38.

Once the result of a wild night or whim, tattoos have gone mainstream and are now considered wearable art, a permanent accessory and a way to celebrate a milestone, declare your love, flaunt your individuality or honor a loved one.

One in five American adults now has a tattoo, according to a Harris Interactive survey.

In her book "Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo," Margot Mifflin reports tattoos are now favored more by women, with 23 percent of women sporting "tats" and 19 percent of men. And a growing number of the tattooed are middle-aged.

Madame Chinchilla, who runs the Triangle Tattoo Art and Museum in Fort Bragg, has been injecting pigment for 27 years. Her clients range in age from 18 to 70, and she thinks the resurgence of interest comes from the media showing off tattooed celebrities and giving "the general public open permission to jump on the bandwagon."

Some tattoo seekers, she said, want to "join the tattoo club" and copy the style of friends and rock stars. More opt for personal expressions, in the form of designs or meaningful quotes.

Chinchilla's most memorable works celebrate a mastectomy or other major scar, like the client who had Chinchilla decorate her mastectomy scar with a redwood branch.

"The tattoo taboo is waning," said Mike Pritchett, owner of Matchless Tattoo in Sebastopol, while coloring in a rose on a young woman's arm with a needle that looked like a dentist drill.

"Getting one used to be an edgy outsider thing. Now it's soccer moms and white-collar people," he said, waving to a regular, whose business suit concealed a Japanese painting of koi fish and a waterfall down his back and buttocks.

Tattoo shops are regulated by the state through a 2-year-old law, the Safe Body Art Act. It's enforced by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, which issues permits and makes annual inspections through its body art division. Guidelines for practitioners and consumers are at www.sonoma-county.org/health/services/bodyart.asp.

Tattoo artists must complete an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) blood-borne pathogen and cross-contamination course, have a current hepatitis B vaccination and "show us a plan on how they're going to keep their facility clean," said Leslye Choate, whose office also covers piercing, permanent cosmetics and branding, which involves burning images onto skin.

"Any time you pierce the skin, there is risk of infection," Choate said. Also, there can be allergic reactions to materials used "and the rare risk of infection of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis."

To date, she said Sonoma County has no reports of cases of HIV or hepatitis associated with tattoos or piercing.

Still, body art doesn't come easy. Tattoos demand a commitment of time, money and certain discomfort. And if you change your mind, they're pricey and often difficult to alter or remove.

Pritchett, who charges $150 an hour for his custom designs, said, "Getting tattooed is a very personal experience. Everyone has a different pain threshold."

The process creates "a large open wound," he said, and takes a week to 10 days to heal. Some parts of the body, like the feet, rib cage, stomach and elbows, are more sensitive than others.

Wilder said her tattoos felt "like a cat scratch that goes on for hours, and after you get it, your skin is red and swollen and you're bleeding. But I have a beautiful piece of art that is mine."

"It hurts for a couple of days," said James Peyton of Santa Rosa, whose 1890s-style pin-up girl took three six-hour sessions to complete. He said he's spent "a couple of thousand dollars" on tattoos that include stencils of his three children's tiny handprints decorating his back.

Nina Hari of Occidental has a hibiscus on her left calf that she got at age 64 to celebrate her retirement from teaching. The only negative reviews come from male contemporaries, she said.

"They're horrified," Hari said. "They associate tattoos with soldiers home on leave going to bars and brothels.

"But I like mine. I think it's kind of cool."

<i>Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.</i>