AUGUSTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Walking into the Colur Tyme Tattoo Parlor is a lot like walking into a head shop. One wall is lined with gang monikers and symbols, the other with bongs for smoking marijuana and other drugs -- one even shaped like a skull.
The Colur Tyme Tattoo Parlor was set up by authorities to get at the heart of gang members.
Only this head shop was a setup. It was a police front in a sting operation to bust gangs in this Georgia river city that most people associate with the Masters Tournament -- not violent thugs with high-powered weapons.
Authorities said some guns sold to the shop were used in crimes just hours earlier.
The tattoo parlor was the brainchild of Richmond County Sheriff Ron Strength, who wanted to snuff out gangs carrying out violent crimes in his east Georgia community.
The idea was to create a place where the gang members would feel right at home, said sheriff's Lt. Scott Peebles. And that they did.
"We put the idea in their heads that there's no way these guys are in law enforcement," he said.
On Wednesday, more than 100 sheriff's officers, state investigators and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives carried out a major bust after an 18-month joint investigation into the gang activity. Watch cops set up tattoo parlor »
Sixty-eight suspects were arrested on charges ranging from trafficking of illegal weapons to serious drug offenses. Authorities seized more than 300 weapons, including high-powered assault rifles.
Rich Marianos, a special agent with the ATF, said such gang activity is spreading across the nation, with small-town gangs increasing their ties with gangs in major cities.
For instance, New York gangs have begun moving as far south as the Carolinas, where they set up operations to buy and sell guns and drugs, he said.
Chicago gang activity extends more than 60 miles into the Illinois city's suburbs for narcotics and weapons trading. In fact, Marianos said the ATF has begun seeing some Chicago gangs establishing a "pipeline" for illegal arms more than 500 miles away in Mississippi.
"It's not just an urban problem," Marianos said. "We're seeing it all over the country."
The ATF, he said, has seen one of the most dramatic increases in gang activity in the last three years and is cracking down.
"We want to look at a way to go after these offenders and prevent it before it happens," he said. "[We're] making the community safer by disarming the bad guys -- not taking guns away from the American citizen, but going after the people who shouldn't have them in the first place."
That's why setting up a tattoo parlor in Augusta was key. Strength, the Richmond County sheriff, said he remembers when the worst crimes in these parts were lawn mower thefts and vandals pushing over birdbaths. But those days are long gone, with gangs such as the Georgia Deadly Boys and Fairington Gangster Thugs causing mayhem on a regular basis.
"In the past 2 1/2 years, we've noticed some major changes," he said, "with the type of criminal offenses they were involved in."
So he devised the undercover business. The Colur Tyme Tattoo Parlor on Tobacco Road was set up on the outskirts of Augusta. It's a location not heavily patrolled by police, but staffed 100 percent by undercover agents.
Business was slow at first, but then things took off. Gang members soon began dropping in to sell guns, drugs and even stolen cars, authorities said. Every transaction was recorded by surveillance cameras around the store.
Soon the shop had so much business the Richmond County Sheriff's Office had to call in reinforcements from the ATF. Four federal agents helped the sheriff's deputies man the counters; others worked behind the scenes.
Vanessa McLemore, ATF special agent in charge, said the teams had to coordinate their behaviors so it seemed like they fit in the store. "They spent a lot of time together learning each other's mannerisms, learning each other's body language. It had to be a brotherhood," she said.
On the store counter was a jar of colored markers to invite clients to write their favorite gang affiliation on the wall. Peebles said agents used the wall for intelligence. "At the very least we got names," he said.
The shop even put up its' own MySpace page. "You think it, we ink it" was the MySpace slogan. It featured the back of a tattooed man, and below in large red letters agents told visitors to the site, "We buy what others won't."
Authorities said the guns came rolling in, and then came this week's bust.
"Today marks the end of one era and the beginning of another," McLemore said. "The era that is ending is one that has brought destruction and decay to the streets of Augusta." E-mail to a friend
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