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Tattooist takes on Commissioner of Police for full time licence as crackdown on bikies leaves emerging artists blocked from work

HE’S the art student turned tattooist who took on the State Government in a mission to earn a living and clear his name.

Michael Owen has won a landmark legal challenge to obtain a full-time tattoo licence after his application was knocked back due to his past criminal history.

The eight month case overturned a ruling by the Commissioner of Police and Fair Trading NSW that declared Mr Owen’s record had made him “an unfit and improper person” to hold the qualification.

The ruling formed part of sweeping laws introduced in 2012 designed to weed out bikie links and organised crime within the state’s tattoo industry.

Figures obtained by The Courier reveals the laws — subjecting all licence applicants to background checks and disclosures of personal associations — have nabbed just two “security risks” this financial year, while leaving more than 400 artists in limbo after their applications were referred to police for review.

The case is now prompting calls for a review of laws which industry figures say are leaving “legitimate operators” unfairly targeted.

“The process was like having a huge X hanging over my head and nothing I could say would change their minds,” Mr Owen said.

“It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t have any affiliation with bikies — because of my record I was just seen as a criminal.

“I’d taken a lot of effort to leave my past behind and move on. That’s why I had to fight this.”

It was mid-2015 when Mr Owen began his traineeship at the Bright Lights Studio in Balmain with the dream of gaining full-time work in the industry.

Michael Owen, pictured at his new job at a studio in Parramatta.

The days were long and he wasn’t earning much but with a young daughter to support, the dream was fast becoming a necessity.

Three months into the traineeship, Mr Owen was encouraged by studio owner Pat Thomas to lodge a licence application to Fair Trading NSW — a process that was supposed to take two months to complete.

Fair Trading forwarded the application to the Commissioner of Police — a provision of the 2012 Tattoo Parlours Act — requiring all applicants to undergo background checks.

It wasn’t until October the next year Mr Owen found out his application had been knocked back due to past convictions for drug possession and a decade-old charge of assaulting a police officer.

With no avenue for internal review, Mr Owen appealed to the Civil and Administrative Tribunal — collecting character references and representing himself against government lawyers.

In a verdict handed down in April, judges found “no evidence Mr Owen had any association with criminals”, stating police “had drawn an extremely long bow between his previous offending and the influence of criminal elements in the tattoo industry”.

The case was one of 597 applications referred to police since 2015, with eight of those refused, 437 granted and 151 remaining in limbo.

Those figures are tipped to rise with amendments to the Tattoo Parlour Act passing through Parliament this month granting police extra powers to use personal associations, juvenile offences or unproven criminal history to determine licence applications.

Tashi Dukanovic, vice-president of the Australian Tattooist Guild, said the laws “placed extra burdens on legitimate operators,” while the “small number of bikies associated with the industry” have gone underground or transferred leases to avoid prosecution.


Police Minister Troy Grant said the additional powers are designed to “reduce infiltration of the industry by organised crime.”

A statutory review of the laws will be held later this year, allowing feedback from the industry.

Mr Owen, who is about to take on a new position at a studio in Parramatta, believes laws should reflect “a person’s right to a second chance”.

“People who have made mistakes are being caught up in something that is aimed at organised crime not artists who happen to have a criminal past,” he said. “We need to challenge this within the legal means because it’s not right.