April 15, 1985 12:00 PM

When Sheila May started her career in a Wisconsin street-front tattoo parlor nearly 20 years ago, her clients were tough guys and sailors who wanted American eagles, snakes, cartoon characters and sentimental tributes to Mom inscribed on their arms and chests.

Business was good, but now that she caters almost exclusively to women, it’s booming. Instead of curlicues and designs, May deftly applies an air-brushed smudged line at the base of women’s eyelashes. The result: a maintenance-free permanent eyeliner. “This process adds a little subtle definition to the face,” says May, 38, who also tattoos color on eyebrows and camouflages scar tissue. May says her process gives women “the confidence to overcome the fear of looking naked without makeup.”

This newfound confidence costs, however. May charges $500 for the half-hour procedure, which takes place in the airy studio of her home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “She’s very good, very artistic,” notes Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Bernard Koire. “She was doing this long before anyone else.”

No matter. Doctors, who offer the benefits of anesthesia, have upped the stakes, charging from $1,000 to $1,600 for the procedure. While critics warn of potential damage to the delicate tissue around the eye, the biggest quarrel is over who will dominate the field. One doctor, Giora G. Angres of Las Vegas, is suing Irvine, Calif. ophthalmologist Robert E. Fenzl for $140 million, claiming infringement of Angres’ patented Natural Eyes technique.

Whatever the outcome, May gets high marks from Dr. Gene Hoffman, a UCLA professor of ophthalmology. After comparing results, Hoffman proclaimed May’s work “superior” to both Angres’ and Fenzl’s. And May, for one, agrees. “I think it’s wonderful that doctors are finally showing interest,” she says. “But they have a lot to learn. This is my baby and I want to be sure it grows up right.”

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