The bad old days. Yayo investigates the link between tattooing and organised crime.
Today tattooing is hip, trendy and populated by artists with raw talent and a passion to champion their profession. But not so long ago tattooing was an underground fraternity in the stranglehold of organised crime. In towns across the UK biker gangs ruled tattoo studios and tattooing was the front for all kinds of illegal activities. Yayo undercover journalist Matt Haddon-Reichardt, met up with his biker contact Dave to talk about the bad old days.
“Tattooing that was the key to it all,” states Dave (not his real name) as he drags hard on a roll up.
Dave had his first tattoo at 16, stole his first motorbike at 17 and was initiated into biker gang culture at 18. What followed over the next 30 years was a life of crime.
“It’s easy to make crime pay what people don’t realise is that once you start making real money, once your criminal activities become profitable you have to do something with the money. You can’t just stick it in the bank because if you do after a while the tax man will get wind of it and ask for his share. With that comes revealing how you made the cash in the first place and who wants to fill in on their tax return that they’re a professional bike thief?”
On previous meetings Dave he had allowed me to record out conversations and take photographs. This time there was a blanket ban on anything other than a pen and paper.
“Some wouldn’t take kindly to me talking to you. I’m only able to go into this now because I’m retired and the other guys involved have moved on, been put away or died.”
"Who wants to fill in on their tax return that they’re a professional bike thief?
He stubs out his nub end in a skull and cross bones ash tray and sips his tea before setting about rolling another cigarette. The china tea cup is oddly placed in a room that looks like the interior design was handled by Lemmy from Motorhead. Hell’s Angles and Renegades flags hang from the walls, a couple of guitars sit gathering dust next to a large 70’s era Marshal amp, in a large glass cabinet replica Nazi daggers and oversized hunting knives jostle for position next to plastic human skulls and a precarious stack of rock and blues records towers over a row of empty scotch bottles.
“Back in the 80’s and 90’s I was heavily involved in the illegal trade of stolen motorcycles,” Dave declares with a wicked grin on his face.
“Not just nicking them, though I did a lot of that, I would ring them, do them up and pass them on to the guy who would handle selling them. It was like a production line. Bikes would come in and we’d have to grind off the serial number and replace it with a fake one to match the new fake documents. That way the original identity of the bike was hidden and untraceable. I was the best in the Midlands at doing that; we called it ringing the bike. So I got a lot of gangs wanting to work with me even though I wasn’t an official gang member. I had this technique where once the number had been ground off I’d bevel the metal thus disturbing any residual trace of the number in the metal work below. That way the forensics couldn’t tell the difference between a stolen and a new bike. We then put on the new number where the old one had been.”
“Once we got raided by the cops and they took all of the nicked bikes. A week later they had to return the bikes cus they couldn’t prove they were stolen. You should have seen the look on their faces. They knew they were hooky but the paper work and the serial numbers all matched up. I should have asked for an apology off the Chief Super,” Dave roars with laughter.
“Back in the 80’s and 90’s I was heavily involved in the illegal trade of stolen motorcycles.”
“So I was making a lot of money and the gangs I was working for were making a lot of money and they had to do something with it. They couldn’t just shove it under the mattress and it was more spare cash than they could comfortably spend. They had to get it back into official channels but first it had to cleaned and that’s where the tattoo studios came in.”
Money laundering is the process of taking cash made from illegal activities and hiding its origin by making it seem to have come from a legitimate source. Dave explained that tattoo studios provided the ideal front for criminal activity. Fake bookings could be made, logged and recorded and the fictional payment for the fictional tattoo would be put through the studios books thus cleaning the money obtained from the sale of the stolen bikes on the black market.
“The guys running the shops were actual tattooist and Joe Public would use their services from time to time. Not only did it allow for us to clean the cash but we got some tattoos in the process and back in those days tattoo studios were great places to hang out.”
I ask if Dave ever worried about getting caught.
“Not really. Prisons not nice but it was an occupational hazard. My biggest worry about going inside, bar the lack of sexercise, was going cold turkey. Back then I was dependant on heroin and not very keen to give up the habit. The point in the process where it was most likely to go wrong was when nicking the bike and I never got caught by a bikes owner taking his property.”
I ask what he would have done if he had been caught.
“I’d have just sparked him out,” he shrugs.
“I only messed up once. Stupidly I took a bird with me on one trip out bike scrumping in Matlock Bath. I must have been having one of my crazy periods or using too much junk but I thought it would impress her showing her how I made my living. I nicked the bike and got it started but the steering lock was on so the handle bars only had a little play either side. That’s not normally an issue cus you can steer a bike using your body weight but with two of us on it that was a lot trickier.”
“We were heading back to get the bike safe and I misjudged a corner, hit the kerb at speed and the bike went from under us. I kicked it clear but we were through a hedge and into a field. The fucker had just been ploughed so the back of my head was banging on the ridges in the soil.”
“When we stopped she was crying and bleeding and I had a whopping big headache and bit of hawthorn hedge sticking out of my left thigh. There was no question we had to get to hospital. We left the bike and hobbled off to the nearest phone box to call an ambulance so I could get the stick removed from my leg.”
I ask what he told the staff at accident and emergency.
“I said we had come off our tandem push bike. They knew it was a lie but they didn’t ask questions just patched me up and told me to go get a tetanus shot in my arse the next week from the GP.”
"Prisons not nice but it was an occupational hazard."
I ask if the police ever realised they were using a tattoo studio to launder money.
“If they did they never let us know. The studios never got raided. You see back in my time bikers going in and out of a tattoo shop was the norm. They weren’t like today frequented by arty types with twiddly moustaches and vegan diets wanting bloody Yoda tattoos. As long as you didn’t deal drugs out of the studio police wouldn’t have much to go on.”
“That’s why bike gangs used to protect their territory and get pissed off if some new tattooist set up shop on their turf. Shops needed a steady flow of normal customers to give the illusion all was safe and well. Gangs didn’t want custom taken away from shops they held an interest in. You can’t have the illusion of a profitable tattoo studio if it has no customers bar the same dozen long haired bikers every weekend. That’s why threats were made and if need be action was taken.”
I ask if he ever took action.
“You know me Matt I’m a pussy cat. Another cuppa?”
Dave headed into the kitchen and I was left gazing at the display cabinet full of fake Nazi knives and reproduction plastic skulls.
A final thought from the author: "Tattooing has cleaned up its act over the past 10 years and the stranglehold organised crime once had over the industry has abated. That said there are still tattoo studios out there that are dodgy, either because they are linked to crime or simply because the artists who work there aren't very good. Choose your tattooist wisely. My advice is go to one of the Yayo Pro Team for your next tattoo. Only the best of the best can be members."
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