Two people relax in the outdoor seating area beneath a red overhang at Indian restaurant Hurry Curry, on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Beethoven Street. At the other end of the strip of aging storefronts, a sign for Tax Plus faces the boulevard.
Nestled between is 2811 Venice Blvd., a somewhat tattered-looking, empty shop that not long ago was home to a federal undercover operation masquerading as the tattoo parlor Villainz Ink. The elaborate sting, a collaboration between the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Los Angeles law enforcement agencies, was unveiled to the public on May 4. The sting caught up a large bunch of alleged bad actors, and resulted in 19 arrests.
According to an ATF spokesman, those arrested are believed to be members of the Venice 13 gang. Many who were suckered in by the storefront have been charged with selling cocaine, as well as illegal firearms sales and possession. One man, Michael Daniali, was charged with two counts of selling meth and one count of intent to sell the substance.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Andrew Cooper says Justin McCourt was arrested for the sale of heroin as an outgrowth of the tattoo parlor operation, which ran quietly and undetected in Venice from late 2009 to early 2010. In the heroin case, things moved swiftly: McCourt, 40, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in California state prison.
"Most of the cases involved drug sales and some weapons sales," says prosecutor Cooper. "Most crimes occurred on the location," at the fake tattoo shop, "but some transactions occurred off-site."
How did a bunch of feds for months fool the sly professional criminals, cop-unfriendly street types and local residents who make up the polite and impolite society of Venice?
Josh Salas, now a piercer at the Insane Sin Tattoo Parlor on nearby Lincoln Boulevard, at one point actually went to the feds' storefront looking for a job, but it wasn't open that day. There was a skull design in the front window and a green sign that read "Villainz Ink." Inside were two old-fashioned barber or dentist chairs along a black counter.
After he started working at Insane Sin, Salas went back to scope out the competition some 15 blocks away but again found nobody.
"It was always closed," he says. "I'm not sure how they were making rent if they weren't making money."
The piercer says the Villainz Ink sign disappeared before the federal raids netted the alleged gang members in May.
ATF Special Agent John Torres confirmed to L.A. Weekly that the storefront operated as a tattoo parlor and that customers were inked by nonagents.
Were they unemployed inkers, so eager for work that they were willing to work for the feds? Or maybe they were conned as well? The spokesman for the ATF bureau's Southern California division refuses to discuss the case, so as not to risk blowing the cover for future operations.
ATF spokesman Chris Hoffman says: "If what [Torres] said was wrong, I would be denying it. Let me put it that way."
In its press release last month, the ATF announced that it, in partnership with LAPD's Pacific Division, "initiated an investigation targeting Venice/Culver City area criminal street gangs known by investigators to engage in firearms-related offenses and narcotics trafficking."
The focus was on Venice 13, also known as Venice Trece, a Latino gang based in the still-rough Oakwood area of Venice. One of the oldest gangs in L.A., Venice 13 has long been seen as a peddler of large quantities of drugs to the nearby enclaves of upscale beach dwellers.
Those named in federal criminal complaints were: George R. Lopez, 41, of Lawndale; Salvador Garcia, 29, of L.A.; Cesar Perez Rios, 39, of L.A.; Mario Vincent Lopez, 43, of Lawndale; Joey Edward Leyba, 37, of West L.A.; and Maribel Gordio, 35, of South L.A.
Passing off an undercover law enforcement operation as a tattoo shop strikes John Noz, an apprentice at the House of Ink tattoo parlor on Oceanfront Walk, as particularly difficult in Venice.
"It's a real close-knit community," he says from his armchair near the doorway of the beachside tattoo parlor, where he's relaxing in sunglasses. Green ink peeks out from the neck of his gray sweatshirt and from under its sleeves. "Many of the shops are owned by the same people."
Jesse Johnson, a resident of Venice, says he would have expected the savvy local gangbangers' cop radar to go on alert.
"People would be wary of a new shop opening, especially a criminal who is paranoid about being caught," he says.
But Karina Mayorga, owner of Ink Ink Tattoo, just down Lincoln Boulevard from Insane Sin, thinks differently.
Venice, long a hot spot for body art, has seen a wave of tattoo shop openings since L.A. Ink aired on cable television's TLC. Shops open and close regularly. In her opinion, the public wouldn't notice anything odd if another parlor came and went.
"Shops are like ATMs around here!" Mayorga says. "At a time when there are so many shops coming and going, it would be easier for a shady shop."
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.
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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.
Tony Cella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.