"First of all, you should define erotic," says the tattoo artist. "Some people might not know the difference between 'sexy' and 'erotic'."

Erotic: 'pertaining to sexual desire'.

The key word is 'desire', the 'sexy' part of the definition a mere qualifier. In any event, these are only words, and conventional wisdom tell us that it takes a thousand of them to do the job of a single tattooed image. A tiger, for instance, an entire penis tattooed as a tiger. Is that erotic? Since when is a tiger erotic? A vagina, then. The fashion photographer recounts the story of the guy with vaginas tattooed all over his body. Is that erotic? "Not to me," explains the photog. "Unfortunately, not to him anymore, either."

So, who's the tattoo for? Or breast implants for that matter? For whom does one go to the gym? The closer you look at this 'erotic' business -- exploring how and why erotic tattoos actually work -- the more complicated it gets. Let's step back and look at the big picture.

"There's something 'bad' about getting any kind of tattoo," says the well-tattooed professional woman. "It's flirting with danger."

IMAGE IS COPYRIGHT © JUSTICE HOWARD PHOTOGRAPHY

Body art in general helps define us as individuals. The body as a work of art -- what better way to bring order to an existence that's increasingly chaotic and meaningless? Tattoos, just like strong opinions and expensive leather Italian shoes, provide certainty in an uncertain world. If we don't feel at home in our bodies, life proves pretty hopeless. Erotic tattoos, then, would seem to be the unique domain of those who feel especially comfortable in their own skin.

Never mind definitions, we know instinctively and immediately what's erotic. A recent trip to the local supermarket provides the perfect example. A young woman, a complete stranger, is squatting to price-compare porridge oats on the bottom shelf of aisle 9, exposing her lower back. At first glance she appears to be sporting the ubiquitous 'tramp stamp', the tattoo that lurks along the tropical latitudes of the female pantyline, except on closer look (okay, it's a blatant stare) they aren't panties at all, but a tattoo skillfully crafted to appear as such. Now, here's the point -- the observer (old enough to be the girl's grandfather) finds himself applying his imagination to her deeper 'no man's land'. He can't help himself, of course. She, on the other hand, has likely organized her attire for accidental viewings like this. Not that she wouldn't prefer someone younger, she would, but that hasn't stopped her tattoo from doing its erotic work.

Mark Lowry photo

"Anything under clothing is hidden and therefore 'erotic'," according to Justice Howard, a visual artist working in L.A. "It's very personal, like a child hoarding things in a little box. He empowers them by keeping them out of sight. 'I got it and you don't.' That kind of thing."

Justice Howard photo

Most tattoos, like other forms of personal adornment, are objects of pride, and tend to be marched out at every opportunity as a sexual statement. But exhibitionism can dull the erotic edge. Someone who cuts a hole in their T-shirt to show off their tattoo -- forget erotic, is it even sexy? Yes, tattoos are increasingly coming out of hiding, but when it comes to erotic, something must be left to the imagination.

The intimate tattoo is hidden for a reason -- it's meant for special viewings only. Sure, accidental glimpses can happen in the supermarket (maybe not so accidental!) but otherwise the erotic tattoo requires an especially receptive audience.

"I was shooting portraits of a wrestler," says Justice Howard. "I asked him if I could shoot him nude. He whips off his clothes, revealing the most beautiful body with Hawaiian tribal tattoos. I love 'tribal' on a man, it's a turn-on, the way the lines graciously follow the curves of his musculature."

But for your average middle-class woman with an erotic tattoo, only her lovers will ever see it," according to tattoo historian Vince Hemingson. "It's her declaration that 'I am a sexual being!' I find that fascinating," says Hemingson, who speculates on how such a tattooed woman might think on a promising first date:

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