Kathryn Rabanne wears a black halter dress to lunch, a long black dress with thin straps. Underneath the dress she wears what seems to be a delicate silk blouse with red, blue and green swirling patterns that end two-thirds of the way down her arms. From a distance of some 20 feet it appears to be quite a handsome silk blouse.

But it isn't silk.

It isn't even a blouse.

You have to get up real close to realize that when she undresses, the black halter goes, but the red, blue and green swirls stay. Because they are tattoos.

They come in all colors, in all shapes and sizes, stitched on arms, legs, backs, chests, necks, ears, stomachs, on the buttocks, the breasts, the most private of private parts. They come as carry-around folk art, as permanent jewelry, as a diarization of important names, events, symbols, statements and fantasies. They come as all these things.

The only thing they don't come, is off.

Last weekend, at the Holiday Inn-City Line in Philadelphia, they held the sixth World Tattoo Convention, a technicolor microsection of the passing parade, a what-they-got-is-what-you-see kaleidoscope, from fragile roses to fire-breathing dragons, from carnations to cobras. Maybe not a G rating, certainly not for everyone, but, like the sideshow at the carnival, one small sneaked peek you can't forget. A surreal trip up the main street of whimsy and down the back alley of wickedness.

The permanently Rorschached.

Tattoo-o-Rama.

Mondo Bizarro.

There was Greg ("Call me Evel") from New Jersey, whose face looked as if it might be on display on a post office wall, and whose arms, ears and chest were decorated not just with tatoos of his idol, Evel Knievel, and the King, Elvis ("got it three days after he died"), and naked women, but with flaming skulls, tombstones, swastikas and grim reapers, Greg, who said, "People are into different things; I, myself, am into death."

There was Ellyn Zapatka, a 23-year-old bookkeeper from Connecticut, who had the classic Hitter-Chick look, the gum-popping, Marlboro-inhaling, hand-on-hip-and-flex that belongs on the back of a Harley doing 85 in a 30 zone, Ellyn Zapatka, whose stomach and breasts took 100 hours to tattoo (the last three hours Friday morning) with birds, depicting what she called "the Biblical story of Evaluation," Ellyn Zapatka, who paraded in the beauty contest wearing a string bikini bottom and pasties, who "shook and sweated, and then got up and showed it," and who continued to show it well after the contest was over and third place was hers.

But there was far more than that narrow slice. The conventioneers were polite, gracious, completely unthreatening. There were college graduates, professionals, trained artists among the 300 -- virtually all of them heavily tattooed -- who came to see and photograph (and be seen photographed wearing) the state of the art. And they were more than willing to try to answer the big question everyone asks: Why?

Key Words:

"Virgin" -- Someone without a tattoo.

"Work" -- The actual tattoo. As in, Who did your "work?"

"Piece" -- A large, mural work. As in, a back "piece."

Patty and Munchkin Lyons came up from St. Petersburg, where they own a by-appointment-only tattoo parlor. Munchkin, who is about 5-3, and eight inches of that is beard, used to be a certified welder; Patty used to be "a curbie at Steak and Shake." Munchkin's arms, chest and back are done; Patty has a major leg piece -- 13 roses, 11 butterflies, seven birds and a dragonfly.

Patty: "I got my first tattoo as a way to express myself. I got a rose on my hip, a rose that'll never wilt. If I had my way I'd get work done all over my body."

Munchkin: "No. Uh-uh. I only let her get one a year. I paid $750 to get her leg work. I sent her to Ed Hardy, he's the best there is; I wasn't good enough to do it myself. I wanted to make sure it was perfect -- a woman has to be done perfect. She sat there and took it, never even flinched. I was real proud."

Patty: "I didn't want to miss a thing. Having Ed to my work was like going to school and getting a diploma; I learned so much from him . . . I brought my first back piece with me. Hey, Dusty, Dusty, c'mere and show this guy your back."

Strange Tattoos (Part 1)

Bill Matthews, 75 years old from Texas, tattoo artist for 56 years: "I had this one guy come in, and he says his nickname is 'Cheesey.' So I put a piece of cheese on him, a big ol' piece of cheese with a rat hole."

As recently as two years ago Art Livermore of San Francisco didn't have a single tattoo. He was 54 then, divorced and the father of two grown sons. He'd wanted tattoos since he was 8, when he saw examples of the Japanese full-body suits in a National Geographic. But first his parents said no, then his wife said no, then his business profile made tattooing economically threatening.

"Then, I sold the business, and I said to myself -- It's now or never."

Now, excepting his face, neck, hands and feet, every inch -- every inch -- is covered with ink. Lots of flash, lots of color, just as he wanted it. Now, when he takes his clothes off, he doesn't feel like he's taken his clothes off.

Livermore: "I was pretty introverted. I had an inferiority complex, and I felt like I wasn't being heard, like people weren't paying attention to me. Now, I'm much freer. I'm much more open. You know, being tattooed gets you into some very interesting conversations. Really."

Some realistic questions and answers:

Q. Does it hurt?

A. Sure, they're sticking needles into your body. But the people at this convention -- and these are hardcores, remember, people in the business -- say it isn't agony.

Q. Does it hurt women more than men?

A. Surprisingly, most tattoo artists say women handle the pain better; they sit still longer and pass out less.

Q. Okay, I can understand getting one small decorative tattoo, maybe a rose or a butterfly, but really, what kind of person gets his or her whole body tattooed?

A. Very weird people, obviously. Not the kind you'll see at Nancy Reagan's next lawn party.

Strange Tattoos (Part II):

Pete Stephens, 32 years old from Seattle, tattoo artist for 11 years: "I tattooed an eggbeater on a guy's arm -- not just any eggbeater, but an antique eggbeater. He was a newspaper editor, and he had an antique eggbeater collection."

And now, the beauty contest.

Eighteen men and eight women, parading individually down a runway before judges and fans -- just like Miss America -- in various degrees of undress, the better to show off the tattoos, turning and posing and hearing the applause and seeing the flashbulbs pop-pop-popping, and prancing and preening and loving every second of it.

"Wow, look at that back piece."

"Turn this way, oh, I love it."

Each contestant introduced by name, age, home town, primary artist and occupation -- mostly blue collar. (You were expecting maybe Lee Iacocca with a Chrysler K-Car on his chest and the word "Bailout" on his back?) It was exhibitional and maybe even slightly soft-core.

"Don't be shy now, you're among friends."

"Now hold that pose."

Livermore and Zapatka, for example, were nearly naked, and they walked the runway like Boom Boom LaTuche. Connie Clayton, an attractive blond from Biloxi, Miss., who won the women's division by virtue of her Garden of Eden back piece, routinely pulled down the back of her dress to completely expose her backside and give the crowd a better more enduring look at her work.

Quotable:

Pete Stephens: "With some men a tattoo has a totem effect; they seem to draw strength from it. A lot of guys tell me to make it look mean, make it look real crazy."

Ed Hardy: "No getting around it, it's pretty strange, pretty surreal. I mean, it's a weird trip."

Lenny Duane (tatoo artist and policeman from New Jersey): "No one here wouldn't let you take a picture of them -- even completely naked. They're honored you'd want it as part of your collection."

Joe Corrica (contestant in beauty contest): "I loved it, man. Standing out there, getting that applause. I could've stayed there all day."

Stephens: "Just like V.D., even nice people get tattoos."

Duane: "Janis Joplin went on television and said, 'People with tattoos like to [engage in passion] a lot.' That really helped our business."

Strange Tattoos (Part III):

John Lenz, tattoo artist and college graduate from Ohio: "One guy came in with a girl's name on his arm, and he had me put in red -- 'Void' -- through the name."

Connie Clayton started with a small butterfly above her left breast, and now she has "a work in progress" on her back. So far she has a tree there, some birds, a squirrel and a Garden of Eden scene. Weird maybe, but it's also quite beautiful. She has already submitted to 35 hours' worth of work, and she figures she has 30 more to go. She wants to "put in more sky, color the tree in, and add some water." Then, she wants to add to her butterfly collection.

(Yet another lepidopterist?)

Clayton: "My family thinks I have a screw loose. . . I was a shy kid, yeah, and getting this work done really brought me out. I guess you get to be kind of an exhibitionist after a while. I love to hear the comments. It's good for my ego. Having this work makes me feel so much more unique. . . I'm walking around with a masterpiece on; I'm a living canvas."

Strange Tattoos (Part IV):

Ed Hardy, 36 years old from San Francisco, tattoo artist for 14 years: "One guy had me put a light bulb on his ear lobe. He said he wanted 'to see what people were saying.'"

Tattooists like to tell you that their work is an art form, that it has existed pan-culturally for thousands of years; they claim such prominent people as Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy had tattoos. (Oddly, there was no mention of Herve "Look Boss, De Plane" Villechaize.)

They have slogans:

Help Beautify America -- Get a Tattoo.

Wear Your Fantasies.

They don't like to talk about prices, but Ed Hardy, who is conceded to be the best freehand tattoo artist in the country, says he charges by the piece, and a full back piece might cost $2,000-$3,000. Many tattoo artists charge by the hour, and the going rate seems to be between $50-$75.A small tattoo, a rose perhaps, might take 15-20 minutes and might cost $25.

"The thing about tattoos is that they're addictive," says Pete Stephens, who got into tattooing by sending away for a Learn Tattooing in Your Spare Time catalogue. "It's like eating peanuts. You can't stop with just one."

Strange Recurrent Scene:

Every year at this convention Elizabeth Weinzril, a 74-year-old grandmother who is tattooed from her knees to her shoulders, pulls up her dress to show her work. Then she takes a lap down the runway so everyone can take her picture.

Ed Hardy doesn't fit the stereotype. He has short hair, wears neat suits, doesn't take off his clothes and has a degree from art school. It is only when you get close enough to see the hawk tattooed on his neck that you realize he belongs here.

Hardy does work by appointment only, he says his clients are 70 percent men and "mainly professionals." He is among the most outspoken of artists, and he considers many of his peers to be "simply scribblers." Hardy sais, "There's a lot of garbage being done.All this massive coverage -- a lot of it is just self-mutilation. You see guys come back each year with more and more tattoos, like it's an up-the-ante psychology. . . That's 42nd Street."

Hardy knew he wanted to become a tattoo artist when he was 10, the first time he saw tattoos. "I was magnetized by it," he says. "I felt I was born to do it." What he seeks to do with his art is "erase the stigma of the tattooed person as ax murderer, and show that it can be artistic." But he doesn't like the overall tone of these conventions when the conventioneers all get on the folkart bandwagon, and proselytize, "because, let's face it, it's always going to be out there on the fringe."

Hardy has thought, long and hard about tattoos. He thinks that people who get tattooed are, in effect, carrying their universe around with them. That's why, he says, tattooing has always appealed to sailors, who are essentially rootless people. He says that at core, tattooing is an attempt to record events that have significant meaning in a person's life, and that overall, it's an expression of freedom.

Hary wears a button that simply says -- "nuttiest."

He suffers no illusions.

Final Irony:

If the behavior at this convention carries any sort of truth, most people who are heavily tattooed seem at least partially motivated by a sense of exhibitionism; one is unlikely to ink in his entire body and not want to show at least some of it off. Clearly, the exhibition of a large piece is sure to open the conversational door.

Munchkin: "I wear long-sleeved shirts most of the time now, because even if I got to say, the 7-Eleven, and someone sees my work I've got to get ino a whole conversation about it. Sometimes, you know, you got to get away from it. It's like a mechanic talking about engines all the time. Who needs it?"

Yet it was Munchkin, during the beauty contest, who gazed at Livermore -- wearing only a G-string, his whole body a massive paint-by-numbers extravaganza -- and said, reverentially, "That man is my idol."