The quiet, auburnhaired young woman stood shyly in a corner of the crowded room. Selfconscious, she fidgeted with the side seam of her knee-length skirt and timidly surveyed the bustling scene around her.

Suddenly a stranger, a middle-aged man clutching a Polaroid camera, approached and bent to whisper in her ear. A blush colored her ivory complexion for only an instant and then Sheila Nichols smiled for the first time.

She nodded assent and the amateur photographer stepped back 10 paces, raising the camera as he walked. "Ready?" she asked in a hushed voice.

Bashfulness gone, she reached down with her right hand, grasped the hem of her dress and hoisted one side of it past her waist.

The photographer exclaimed with delight as he beheld a finely detailed tableau of half a dozen glowing butterflies amid a vivid field of wildflowers.

As a crowd of admirers quickly surrounded, Nichols, 25, a Corpus Christitattooist, gazed proudly at her tattoo, which wrapped from her abdomen down to her lower right thigh.

"Having a tattoo makes you special. Everyone, even the most obscure, nobody person, can become someone overnight," Nichols said, beaming as cameras clicked. "You become a living work of art."

Others in the crowd, their bodies ablaze with dragons, panthers, birds, snakes, lizards, flowers, trees, gargoyles and figures from Chinese folklore, collectively murmured agreement.

More than 300 of those tattooed folk -- and about 500 spectators and two dozen reporters -- gathered recently in Houston for the Fourth World Convention of the 650-member North American Tattoo Club. Artists and fans came from as far away as Europe, Australia and Japan for business sessions, workshops, beauty contests and cocktail parties. And, of course, to get tattooed.

Far from the stereotypical assortment of leather jacketed bikers, redeyed sailors and streetwalkers, the colorful group was, for the most part, well groomed and respectably dressed.

They bared their chests, arms, legs, backs and even faces to the artists' needles, which pierce the skin up to 3,000 times a minute -- a slightly painful sensation "kinda like a minor sunburn," said Donald Ernst, a telephone company employe.

Before beginning a tattoo, the artist shaves the skin, cleans it with an antiseptic, and outlines the design with a ballpoint pen. Then, aided by an assistant, the artist dips the needle into small containers of colored pigment and follows the outline, filling in the colors one by one.

Once the pigment is implanted, the tattoo is there to stay; nothing short of complicated and expensive surgical removal and a skin graft will eradicate it.

"It really is personal," said L. C. Gray of Portland, Ore. "It's hard to describe the feeling you have when you're tattooed.

"I guess the closest I can come is to say that love lasts a lifetime -- a tattoo lasts six months longer."

As their gleaming machines chattered like a horde of crickets on a summer night, a dozen tattoo artists, some of whom spent up to $1,000 each to attend the three-day convention at Dunfey's Royal Coach Inn, practiced their art on scores of enthusiasts aged 17 to "just say 80-plus, okay?"

The tattooees -- including young housewifes, dowagers, musicians, architects and physicians -- queued up in front of photos and drawings offering them a choice from hundreds of designs.

Simple tattoos began at $15, for a name or small design. The artists charge by the hour -- usually about $50 to $60 -- for larger, more ornate designs.

Few would divulge the prices they paid for their pieces of body art. "How do you put a price tag on esthetic value?" asked Gray.

He removed his shirt and pants to reveal a striking mural -- spread across his chest, back, arms and legs -- of dragons and Chinese warlords ("It depicts a Confucious proverb about an evil god who wanted to steal a gem'" Gray explained, pointing toward a bright spot on his belly. "The gem's in my navel.")

"It's a piece of living, flexible art," Gray said. "Can you imagine what people would pay to own a painting of this they could hang in their living rooms?

"I'll just say one thing. I could own a hell of a car -- a Cadillac, no, a Rolls Royce -- for what I paid for this."

Whatever the price, club president Dave Yurkew claims that there are 44 million tattooed people in the United States today.

"That's about 30 perecent of the population," said Yurkew, a Minneapolis, Minn., tattoo artist."It's nothing to be ashamed of any more -- it's beautiful.Take some of the ladies here: They don't need tattoos to look prettier. But they got them and they look sexier.

"I use to say you couldn't improve on perfection, but I look at some of these women -- like my wife Marj [who sports eight large tattoos across her arms, chest and back] -- and I stand corrected," Yurkew said.

Some visitors, however, begged to disagree. One couple from Bay City, Tex., wandered in to the gathering by accident and stared wide-eyed and disbelieving at the spectacle. They beat a hasty retreat.

"I can't believe people would do their bodies that way," said the middleaged woman, who refused to give her name. "I don't want to have anything to do with this at all -- the body is supposed to be temple of God and this is a sin."

She was interrupted by a beerswigging youth who waved his tattooed arms at her. "What about people who spend thousands and thousands of dollars for plastic surgery to change bodies?" he shouted. "I bet you agree with that, huh?"

"Yes,' the woman replied, spinning on her heels toward the exist. "But that's good for the soul."

Gray, who said he spent several months at the University of Washington researching the oriental design of his tattoo, shook his head angrily when told of the conversation. "Man has continually sought ways to express his individuality, and one way to do it is through a unique and ancient art form like tattooing," he said.

"And tattooing has changed, it's evolved. There's no more "Born To Raise Hell" or drunken sailors -- no more swastikas," Gray said. "We don't want that to represent our art. Most tattooing is really artistic now; it's a flowing, moving art form."

"It's like living a dream," Sheila Nichols said. "It's a hundred percent better than being in an art gallery, because you're the piece of art. I'd rather look at a tattoo than a Rembrandt painting -- the tattoo's alive."

She paused thoughtfully, her eyes darting over the mass of pastel-colored flesh in the convention room.

"I'd never go back to not being tattooed," Nichols said. "Why live in black or white when you can live your life in Technicolor?"