On the whole, tattoo work has a always been something of an also-ran in the field of fine arts, possibly because it is so difficult to mat and frame the work for exhibition.

But all that may change in 1981.

University of California Los Angeles professor Arnold Rubin and Jan Stussy are even now making arrangements for what may be the world's first exhibition of living tattoo artistry at UCLA's Frederick Wight Gallery, in the fall of that year.

"Personally," said Stussy, an Oscarwinning filmmaker, "I think tatoos are like films... just another way of making pictures."

He began his own tattoo studies last spring and discovered what he believes to be an emerging fine art form.

The humblest tattoos, he said, are those applied by use of a plastic stencil with a drawing printed on it. The tattooist follows the outline with his electronic pen a comblike cluster of needles dipped in color and stabbed into the skin at a rate up to 2,500 jabs per minutes.

At the other end of the spectrum, said art historian Rubin, Stussy's partner in arranging the exhibition, are the tattoos made from original designs, drawn on the skin without the aid of a stencil.

And these, Rubin said, are the ones now attracting the attention of artists and critics.

"Tattooing in America," he said, "still gets lumped together with "combat" businesses, adult bookstores, massage parlors and bars. Most people cannot make a distinction between tattoos associated with bikers, gangs and prisoners and the fine tattoos done by professionals for an entirely different clientele."

It has been only recently, Rubin said, that artists like Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven "appeared on the scene and started throwing away their stencils."

"It's remarkable," said Raven, "that until a short time ago, no one considered making a tattoo without an outline."

Raven experiments mainly with colors and techniques, Stussy explained, while Hardy's innovations are more in subject matter.

Hardy did a backpiece last year with a bicentennial theme:

"It was a picture of a 1940s pinup girl," said Hardy, "with blond stylized hair. She was riding an eagle over stormy seas. In her left hand she carried an American flag, and a ribbon reading '1776 America 1976' divided the waves."

(That work won the "Tatoo of the Year" award at the 1977 International Tattooists' Convention in Reno.) Stussy said most tattooists are still unaware of the complexities involved in creating "real art on human skin.

"A proper tattoo artist," she said, "not only needs to know how to draw, but he must consider how his art design will be modified by the body's bones and muscles."