Former legal secretary Ruth Porter has changed jobs so that she can have the freedom to have more tattoos.
She gets high when the needle starts to buzz.
Alistair Barlow, a year older at 28, has suddenly armed himself with a 21st century green “sleeve”.
The other colours are equally bright, the finish a Dulux-style matt vinyl sheen.
Even so, he admits that after a few weeks he could no longer see his new body art, rather like the paintings you might have at home unless you rotate them.
Ali is self-employed. Like Ruth, there’s no stigma involved. Just pleasure. Euphoria even.
When we first meet, he’s just 10 days away from getting back into the chair at Birmingham’s Body Garden Tattoo ready to have more work done.
It will cost him £60 per hour, but he can’t wait to add to the 20 million tattoos already thought to be etched on the skins of people in the UK.
Ruth and Ali have an equally relaxed body language and both are so comfortable in their own skin you could easily assume they might be boyfriend and girlfriend.
Yet, until tonight, they’ve never even met.
Tattooist Cesar De Cesaro has brought them together in his shop, Body Garden Tattoo, in Fletcher’s Walk.
Not to have more work done tonight. But to meet me.
To explain to a sceptic why we’ve become Tattooed Nation, not a description used by Labour leader Ed Milliband during his One Nation speech this autumn.
In a world that doesn’t add up economically, when job prospects are at a premium and when we are told we can all live longer (into an age of stretched, thinner skin), I find the tattoo boom all the more remarkable.
When I was born, I only had one grandparent with faded wartime tattoos on his arm.
I can still hear my late mother chastising his stupidity.
“Never get tattoos,” she’d tell me. “They look horrible, don’t last and make you less employable. Your granddad (and I never did ask him direct) always regretted having them done.”
I find myself repeating this mantra to my own three children, even though, more than anything, I frequently tell them to be yourself and to always have an open mind.
In a world when so many people have tattoos that sheer weight of numbers has made them much more socially acceptable than 20 years ago, what does my attitude make me?
Merely stepping over the threshold and into an unseen studio will be a major issue, far harder than my recent trip to the dentist to have a (wisdom) tooth removed for the first time.
Body Garden Tattoo is different. Here there are no screens. You can see right into the entire shop and looking through the window, you’ll see people lying down or sitting upright, having work done.
The studio feels open. Welcoming even.
Ruth and Ali were both 16 when they had their first tattoos done.
Like my mother promised, they regret them to a degree. But only because they weren’t done by someone as talented as Cesar.
Now they’ve found The Tattooist for them, it’s full needles ahead.
A part-time graphic designer, Ruth is in her third year of a BA Hons degree in illustration at the University of Birmingham with ambitions to design her own range of toys.
She has eight imprints on her own body now, including a UV tattoo which comes alive under night club lights, and a lizard on her left shoulder.
An old tattoo, behind her left ear, has been redone with feathers.
She decided to change it after an earlier tattooist’s version of her own fairy design was mistakenly described by her crimper as a “fish with legs”.
Cesar’s first work on her body was a bird wrapped around her entire left rib-cage. More recently, he’s inked a light ornamental motif snaking around her right shoulder.
The cost for that alone was £180 for three hours’ work.
But if she can’t see the tattoo behind her ear, the one on her shoulder... what’s the point?
And why do so many other women have work done on their backs, just above the waistline?
“The tattoos are just for me,” says Ruth. “I love them, but when I was a legal secretary I couldn’t show them off before.
“For my first work with Cesar, the ribs seemed the perfect place to start.”
Older and wiser, but now hungrier for much more serious work to be done, why did she choose him to be her tattooist?
“Unlike most studios, he doesn’t have flash cards on the wall,” she says.
“Everything he does is individual to you. You will never see anybody else walking around with the same tattoo.
“I will keep going now until I run out of skin, but I won’t have any done on my face.
“My career path has changed completely since I was working for law firms. I am creative. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be having artworks on myself. It’s another part of me.”
Do tattoos make people feel more sexual?
“I think it depends on the person,” says Ruth, whose boyfriend Oli hasn’t got any (but is thinking about the “huge commitment” to be inked).
Won’t these artworks deteriorate as she gets older and her skin stretches and wrinkles. What then?
“I moisturise daily and I’ll just make sure I don’t get fat,” she says.
Post-tattoo recovery depends on each person and the quality of their skin.
Ruth says her ribs and shoulder healed in days.
That sounds like pain enough to me, but what is it like to actually go under the needle?
“I love it,” she says, her eyes opening wide.
“I don’t go to the dentist because I want my teeth pulled out. But with The Tattooist, there’s adrenaline. It’s really exciting.
“Then you can show them to your friends.
“It’s part of my life and you’ll talk to other people about them at festivals.”
Ali is the son of Gary Barlow.
Not the Take That star and judge on The X Factor, but Gary, the son of Alfred, founder of a 40-year-old family firm making souvenir boxes in Solihull.
Now that Ali is the boss, he has no fears for the social consequences of his body art.
His first tattoo was in Sparkhill when he was 16.
“It’s a small one on my back and it’s crap,” he admits.
“But because it’s something I had done when my brother took me, it means a lot to me.”
Today he has a large bear on the back of his right leg as well as the left arm “sleeve”.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to get something else done,” says Ali.
“I spent a year trying to find someone and after looking at Cesar’s stuff I decided ‘Yes’.”
The skulls on his “sleeve” represent Mexican attitudes to death, that lives should be celebrated and not mourned.
“That’s such a nice tradition,” says Ali. “I gave Cesar a few ideas and went for it.
“For the first few weeks I kept looking (at my arm) and thinking ‘That’s awesome, that’s awesome’.
“I’m not looking forward to the next one.
“I never thought I would pay to have any more, but they you start thinking about stuff.
“‘You think ‘that would be cool’ and then you get that buzz: ‘I’m going for a sleeve!’.”
And the pain of the process?
“You can’t have a rose without a thorn.”
Ali says his parents have already accepted his new look.
“My dad was in his 40s when he had his first one. Now he’s just had his whole chest done without telling anyone, so mum says I’m just like him.
“She has said she might have a little rose on her shoulder.”
He, too, isn’t bothered if his tattoos are covered up and in a place where he either can’t see them or if others don’t even know they are there.
“You don’t get strangers coming up to you in the street wanting to see your nipples,” he laughs.
Ten days later, as promised, I arrive at Body Garden Tattoo to see the real work in progress.
Ali is lying down on the couch, his left arm outstretched. Cesar keeps dipping his buzzing tool into tiny pots of paint, smaller than the ones you can get in painting by numbers kits.
As he drills away on Ali’s arm the colour spreads everywhere. It’s astonishing how he can see what he’s doing.
Every minute or so he wipes the residue away and cleans the arm with a fluid that a baby could tolerate.
Ali, meanwhile, is smiling just as broadly as he was when we first met.
I find it hard to distinguish tattooist Cesar De Cesaro’s accent from the heavy metal music playing on his sound system.
But that’s because he’s a Brazilian who has been running his own studio here for two years now.
He says: “I knew it would be a good place to open here in England because there’s a lot more demand for tattoos than where I’m from.”
How does his relationship clients differ, say from a hairdresser who really gets to know his or her clients?
“Good tattoos are a lot more expensive and sometimes you are finished having them done, but here the business has always been growing,” says Cesar.
“Sometimes a “sleeve” can cost £3,000, but then you need to have a break.
“I like to see customers, but I only feel sad if a customer doesn’t finish a tattoo (I’ve started).
“If they are moving town or country or have no money, then I feel sad. But I always like it when the come back to say Hello.”
Cesar says you learn the trade either by doing the work or taking an apprenticeship.
“I didn’t have an apprenticeship 14 years ago when I started. If I’d had one, I could have been where I am today six years ago,” he admits.
“It takes two years to learn the theory and the practice takes five to reach a level where you really feel comfortable because you are always learning something.”
Cesar won’t tattoo anybody under the age of 18 and won’t do hands, neck or face unless you already have extensive, visible tattoos.
His fully reclining chairs cost £600 each from the US so that he can do a proper job in all areas.
“I don’t tattoo quick and I don’t tattoo simple,” he says.
“A “sleeve” will take 20 to 40 hours’ work. Some people finish just because it starts to take too long.”
What does he make of a trendsetter like David Beckham?
“Some of his tattoos I don’t get,” he says.
“Some are all right. I haven’t looked at them too much, it’s not my stuff at all.
“It’s against my principles to do someone else’s tattoo.
“If someone says to me ‘I want the same’, I say ‘No – I’m going to draw it for you and it will be better because I am drawing it’.”
What does he talk about with customers during he work?
“Oh, we just talk about random things. The main thing is just getting going.
“Some people will just sit there for three hours, and then it’s not something I have to think much about.
“My relationship with customers is different to a hairdresser. You don’t come to me every two weeks for five years, so I don’t see people that often.”
Cesar, who always works from Monday to Saturday, wonders about his pricing policy at a time when he has noticed the economy is squeezing people’s finances.
“I think I should actually charge more,” he says, “because some people charge the same and do really bad tattoos.
“I charge for how good they will look. And customers must know what they want... otherwise I could draw them thousands of things and they would still not like it.”