The consensus among these tattoo artists was that the feds' tattoo shop had to have looked professional to fool so many.
Victor Flores, a piercer at House of Ink, says customers judge a tattoo shop on its cleanliness and might even inquire about its health certificates. Displaying quality artwork on the walls, along with portfolios of the artists' previous work, helps to win over discerning customers.
Maggie Wyman, of S & S Tattoo, a beachside shop a short walk from House of Ink, says convincing customers to get inked at a particular shop requires only having a "car salesman's side."
"It's not hard. You just need any type of sales experience. It's no different," she says.
Apparently the feds chose their salesmen well, but they also had to have the craft to pull it off.
One tattoo artist, Jim at S & S, says the style of the artwork in the portfolios on offer is used to attract particular clients. Gangster-style art uses little color and draws heavily on religious influences. A prospective client seeking a tattoo associated with crime wants an artist proficient in Catholic and Aztec images, script and lettering.
The local tattoo artists and some Venice residents believe, in retrospect, that the law enforcement agencies must have conducted extensive research and hired outside tattoo artists nobody knew.
Quoting ATF Special Agent Torres, the Weekly reported on the sting on its news blog, The Informer, on May 4. ATF spokesman Hoffman refused to discuss the details Torres provided to the public, and LAPD refused to talk about the sting, period.
"He [Agent Torres] opened the door on this one," Hoffman says. "I'm not adding to it.
"The goal wasn't to do tattoos," he adds, "it was just: 'Give an outlet for criminal activity to congregate.' "
It rankles some of the tattoo artists that their art form's reputation attracted such a plan to Venice.
"Despite the efforts of myself and many of my colleagues to raise the image of the industry, tattoos still share a reputation with sailors, bikers, gangsters and fallen women," Wyman says.
Venice resident Johnson, who sat cross-legged in front of his skateboard in a black sweatshirt and shorts, doesn't have tattoos.
"People use tattoos to appear seedy, but most people are over it" in Venice, he says. He was more concerned about police entrapping people at the Villainz Ink parlor.
Steven Cikos, a tattoo artist at House of Ink, thinks mainstream culture is accepting skin ink as an art form. "If it's a bunch of flowers, it's obviously not criminal," he says.
Wearing a Dickies jacket and a spindly mustache, he chuckles and turns toward the floor of House of Ink.
"It's like a drawing on a piece of paper. You can tell if it's an art thing — or if it's tagging and gang signs."
You just can't always tell who's doing the drawing.