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Australia's tough anti-gang laws target tattooists

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 4:48 AM EDT, Wed October 16, 2013
Australian Hells Angels show their colors at a Melbourne underworld funeral in 2010.
Australian Hells Angels show their colors at a Melbourne underworld funeral in 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Queensland passes raft of tough new laws targetting motorcycle gangs
  • The laws follow similar anti-association laws in other Australian states
  • Tattoo parlors have been the subject of stringent new laws in some states
  • Critics say the laws are populist measures that target a high-profile group

(CNN) -- In Sydney's trendy eastern suburbs, tattoo parlors are almost as ubiquitous as hairdressers.

Fashionable, arty and with a long list of celebrity customers, the tattooists at Bondi Ink -- along the hip strip on Bondi Beach's Campbell Parade -- have taken the art form a long way since blue birds of happiness and 'death before dishonor' skull designs formed the stock in trade of parlors in the onetime port city.

"We run it like a hair and beauty salon -- usually Mondays and Tuesdays are our mums and prams day," co-owner Wendy Tadrosse told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

While boutique tattoo parlors such as Bondi Ink like to highlight their family-friendly credentials, police estimate that at least one-in-four tattoo parlors across Australia are affiliated with outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hells Angels, the Gypsy Jokers and the Finks.

This month, New South Wales passed new laws requiring tattoo parlor owners and employees to provide detailed information about their personal associations and criminal histories.

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Tadrosse said the new law unfairly targets the new breed of boutique tattoo parlors.

"It's like we've been tarred with the same brush," she said. "If there's a shooting somewhere it's like, "Oooh, you know, bikies, tattoos."

Arthur Katsogiannis of the New South Wales Gang Squad said growing gang membership is now presenting serious law and order concerns across Australia.

"Murder to armed robbery to arson to malicious damage, firearms offences - tattoo parlors are synonymous with outlaw motorcycle gangs," Katsogiannis told the ABC.

"Predominantly the way they make their income is through the manufacturing and distribution of illegal drugs, and by having the tattoo parlors opening, they can put some of the income derived from those illegal practices and declare it as income through the tattoo parlour, which then legitimises that particular income," he said.

He estimates that in New South Wales alone, there are just over 2000 gang members of outlaw motorcycle clubs and that recruitment is accelerating both in Australia and internationally.

Besides the Tattoo Parlors Act, members of motorcycle clubs -- or 'bikies' as they are known in Australia -- have had to contend with anti-association laws in New South Wales and South Australia.

Engaging lawyers to overturn the laws in those states, bikies are now about to fight another battle in the northern Australian state of Queensland which on Wednesday passed a law banning gang members from owning, operating or working in tattoo parlors.

The suite of laws aimed at disbanding gangs named 26 criminal organisations, including the Bandidos, Finks and Mongols, and banned members and associates from gathering and recruiting for new members.

The laws also carry additional jail terms of 15 to 25 years for bikies who commit serious crimes.

The state government, however, says it intends to go further, driving bikies out of the security, gym and second-hand car industries and even mooting a special bikies-only jail.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman vowed to hunt down "relentlessly" criminal gangs in the state.

You've got a whole bunch of disaffected alienated at kids out there who see bike clubs as a cool alternative
Adam Shand

"This is not some flash in the pan or momentary phase. We are going to hunt you down," he told parliament this week. "Take off your colors, get a real job, act like decent, law-abiding human beings and become proper citizens in the state of Queensland and you will not have to go to jail."

Australian writer and journalist Adam Shand -- author of "Outlaws: The Truth About Australian Bikers" -- told CNN that the bikie threat was often exaggerated by state governments who found a convenient populist target in outlaw gangs.

"Almost all the states have at one time or another -- usually to distract from problems or get re-elected - elected have brought up the bikie issue up," he said.

"We've seen vast amounts of money spent on task forces and crackdowns and new laws but in that period of about 10 years, the club numbers have only gone up: it's actually attracted more young guys to the movement who figure 'well, if the cops don't like it, there must be something good going on.'

"You've got a whole bunch of disaffected alienated at kids out there who see bike clubs as a cool alternative."

He said bikie chic in Australia was now so commonplace that fashion houses were releasing their own line in four-piece 'rockers' -- the traditional leathers worn by motorcycle gang members.

"Of course, you probably wouldn't want to be standing next to a bikie when you went out wearing one," he said.

While critics, including the president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, and NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, have derided the new laws as 'hysterical', bikies have been involved in some high-profile murders including beating to death a rival gang member at Sydney Airport in plain view of passengers in 2009.

Australia's most notorious turf war between rival clubs occurred in 1984 when members of the Comancheros and the Bandidos motorcycle club clashed in the Sydney suburb of Milperra.

Seven gang members and one bystander were killed in the shooting spree which eventually led to 63 murder convictions and became the catalyst for significant changes to gun laws in New South Wales.

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