Australia - BIKIE gangs are extorting money from Sydney tattoo parlours - and owners who don't pay up are violently attacked or firebombed in retribution.
Police are embarking on an aggressive campaign to reshape the tattoo industry after discovering bikie groups have divided the Sydney basin into vast territories and turf, using violence and standover tactics to extort thousands of dollars from owners of tattoo shops.
The sums being paid to the gangs range from $500 to $2000 per week, police say.
When the cash isn't paid the shop owners are subjected to firebombings and drive-by shootings.
The five main gangs involved in the extortion are the Hells Angels, Comancheros, Nomads, Rebels and Bandidos.
The Comanchero are well-known for their control over the eastern suburbs of Sydney while the Rebels have a foothold over the west and south.
Police are presently trying to manage a power struggle involving the Hells Angels, who have a hold over businesses in the Parramatta area.
Detective Superintendent Arthur Katsogiannis said gang members were approaching new tattoo shops within days or weeks of opening their doors.
"There are legitimate operators who have tried to start up tattoo parlours but have been firebombed out of there or stood over by groups in those areas," Supt Katsogiannis said.
"In terms of how much is being paid, what's been reported to us has ranged between $500 to a couple of thousand dollars - we believe that's on a weekly basis."
Supt Katsogiannis said senior members of the different gangs kept a dialogue with each other to avoid disputes over turf.
"They (gang members) know if a particular landscape is the domain of a particular group - they talk to each other, just like we talk to each other."
Police have been hamstrung by the lack of regulation in the industry, which has meant that any person could open a studio without any licensing or approval.
According to NSW Fair Trading, there are 350 known tattoo parlours operating in the state.
New laws passed in May are finally allowing police to gain control over the industry and keep tabs on which people are involved. Under the changes, approved by state cabinet on Monday, new tattoo studios will be required to apply for a license to operate, and each application will be vetted by police. The licensing scheme, pending final approval, will begin on February 1.
"We will be using the new powers and those of the NSW Crime Commission to help regulate the industry and reduce the control by these gangs," Supt Katsogiannis said.
Existing operators will have a six month "grace period" to apply for a license, and may be forced to close if they are found to have criminal affiliations.
Michelle, who used to operate a tattoo parlour with her husband and asked that her surname be withheld, said it was well-known that anyone starting up needed to pay commissions to the dominant gang in their area.
She refused, and her business was repeatedly attacked as a consequence.
"We thought, we're an ordinary family, no threat to them ... we didn't think we'd have an issue," she said.
In the end, the business was forced to close after a truck was driven through the parlour's front doors.
"The insurance wasn't going to keep paying for the damage ... we decided it was too dangerous to stay."
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