SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Golden eagles took wing from shoulders, rock stars grinned from backs and green dragons curled around thighs as 4,000 people wandered through the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel here in search of the perfect tattoo.
The convention of the National Tattoo Association two weeks ago had its share of burly men with beards and purple-haired women with nose rings. But the crowd also included women with toddlers and the middle-aged of both sexes, who happily peeled off their jackets or rolled up their sleeves to expose the tigers and trolls, feathers and foliage rippling along their arms.
For generations, tattoos were thought of as the shadowy domain of sailors and convicts. Judging by the convention crowd, that stereotype appears as outdated as the image of a heart proclaiming "I love you, Mom" riding a biceps.
In New Jersey and elsewhere, the status and practice of tattooing are changing, and its popularity is growing. Followers of the art say there are about 1,500 tattoo artists and 60 studios in the state.
More and more women are getting tattooed. At the convention, a 90-year-old woman, roses circling her arms and a serpent astride her knee, rolled her wheelchair along the rows where 72 tattooers were crammed into 30 booths.
A new branch of the business, cosmetic tattooing, used for applying permanent makeup and disguising scars, caters mainly to women. Many of today's tattooers boast of their fine-arts training.
Fear of contracting the virus that causes AIDS through a tattoo needle has apparently not slowed business, the collectors, as they call themselves, report. And the federal Centers for Disease Control, which issued guidelines for tattooers in 1985, has not seen a single case of the virus' being transmitted through tattooing, "although it's theoretically possible," said Charles P. Fallis, a spokesman at the centers.
Tattooers say they still battle local bans and prejudice. Some cities forbid tattooing under local ordinance; other towns just make life and business difficult.
When Patricia A. Sinatra looked into opening a tattoo shop in the Paterson, N.J., area, she said, she ran into a "brick wall."
"All these bans do is force tattoo artists to work underground where there are no regulations, which creates a health problem," said Ms. Sinatra, who plied her craft at the convention under a banner advertising Pat's Tattoos. She said she had set up a business in Woodstock, N.Y.
When Diane E. Farris, a former computer graphics designer and a resident of Lake Hopatcong, N.J., opened Powerhouse Tattoo in Montclair last July, she said, other merchants voiced concern about the neighborhood. But six months after she moved in, Ms. Farris received an economic development award from the Montclair Chamber of Commerce.
"It was for bringing so much business to the town," she said. "People come into my studio with their friends and while they're waiting, they'll go out and buy a record or a sandwich."
Jammed into the tiny booth with Pat's Tattoos, another tattooer, called Dr. Mike, donned gloves and readied his instruments for the neck of James M. Bush, an engineer from Shirley, N.Y.
Dr. Mike is also known as Dr. Michel Leuzzi, who practiced dentistry full time until he discovered his real calling, he said. Now, he spends one day a week at his dental office and four days a week practicing his new art at Richie's Guide Line Tattoo in Sayreville, N.J.
"When people come to the dentist, they don't want to be there," he said. "Here, they'll sit for hours."
His illustrations blended with his client's as he grasped a section of skin with his left thumb and forefinger. Cradling the electric device containing the buzzing needle in his right hand, Dr. Mike pushed black pigment into the client's neck, drawing bubbles of blood to the surface.
Since it is a small tattoo, it will take about five minutes and cost about $30. Tattooers charge $75 to $200 an hour for services that include quick reproductions from design sheets called "flash," cover-up of old tattoos, cosmetic work and custom design. Custom tattoos can take a week to create and, if they're large, can be years in the making.
Some tattoo customers end up with "full body suits," totally covered from neck to wrists to ankles. Clients don't seem put off by the pain, which can be considerable where nerve endings lie close to the skin's surface.