My 22-year-old niece Chardonnay showed up at the beach house my brother had rented wearing hip-huggers and a short tank top. There were 20 inches of bare skin between the top of the pants and the bottom of the shirt. When she turned around, it was hard to miss the fact that she had three large Chinese characters tattooed on the small of her back.

No big deal, I suppose. They are pretty, and other than a few thousand people at the gym, the mall, the airport and the beach, who’s going to see them?

I asked her what the characters meant. She shook her long blond hair and said, “Oh, like, peace, energy and harmony. Or something like that.”

“But you looked the symbols up on the internet, right? You did some research?”

“Nah, they were on a poster on the tattoo guy’s wall. I picked them out myself, though.”

So they could really say “Eat at Joe’s,” “Post no bills” and “Wang Chung’s Tire Barn” for all she knows.

It used to be, if you had a tough-looking tattoo — the if-you-see-me-coming-better-step-aside kind — you had to be in a motorcycle gang to carry it off correctly. Now I see motorcycle gangs roar down the highway where the youngest member is 65. They’re on cellphones, trading stock in their 401k plans and scheduling rounds of golf. They’re about as scary as a flock of TV meteorologists.

People used to associate sailors with tattoos, too. But when people think of the Navy now, they don’t picture a fearsome bunch of brawling seamen on shore leave. They don’t think tattoos. They think “NCIS.”

Besides, “tough” is a lot nicer than it used to be. I saw a guy at the health club with a big Harvard “H” tattooed on his leg. My spotter said, “Whatever you do, don’t mess with him — I heard he once threatened to tip a waitress 15 percent instead of 20.”

Wow! What an out-of-control hot-head! What will he say next?

The actual process of getting a tattoo interests me, though. I’m picturing this gnarly guy with a Grizzly Adams beard, no shirt, with his hairy, tattooed arms sticking out of a black leather vest. He’s leaning over my niece’s backside with a needle in his sausage-fingered hands. And she paid him for this. Do you think if he wasn’t a tattoo “artist,” he’d ever get anywhere close to an attractive young woman?

Of course, it’s not like that anymore. Tattoos get done in sanitary, well-lit, wholesome, highly professional places these days. Like the atriums of big shopping malls during the Saturday rush. And the artistry has improved substantially. “Mom” inside a heart looks crude and amateurish next to an entire sleeve of psychedelic flowers morphing into cosmic fantasias.

It must be hard to tell your teenagers not to get a tattoo when all of their bazillion-dollar sports heroes all have them. I don’t feel as if I’m watching a basketball or football game anymore, so much as I’m at an art gallery. Sometimes I can see words tattooed on some of the athletes — things that are important and inspirational to them, I hope. It would be so disappointing to find out that your favorite athlete has “Don’t forget to bring home the milk” tattooed on his inner forearm.

Still, Chardonnay can get away with wearing low-rise hip-huggers at 22, but what will those Chinese characters look like when she’s 50? Will her husband look at her backside one day and say, “There’s a liver spot on ‘energy.’ Now it says ‘cellulite.’” Will the three characters spread out into six?

Will she go for acupuncture one day for lower back pain and have the technician say, “Why do you have ‘chicken with broccoli’ written on your backside?”

Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com.