GASTONIA, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) - Like a tattoo artist's needle, we are going under the surface.
Using a hidden camera, FOX 46 went undercover inside a Gastonia tattoo shop to expose a secret. From the outside, Ink Link Tattoos, on East Franklin Boulevard in Gastonia, is unassuming. However, this business is more than skin deep.
Next to the tattoo art board you'll find an unmarked door. That door leads to a small closet-like area with a second unmarked door. On the other side, the area is monitored by video surveillance. We knock. A few seconds later, the door opens and we're let inside.
What we uncovered is a small, backroom gambling operation that Ink Link Tattoos, a more than 15-year-old business, doesn't want you to know about.
"You ever play here before?," a man inside the room asks FOX 46's undercover producer. "Who told you about this place?"
This place is protected by a fake wall and a video surveillance system that monitors the outside of the door and building .
"Is there a reason it's hidden back here?," our producer asked
"You're asking a lot of questions, man," the room attendant responded.
Customers come by word of mouth, according to a source. Inside, we found at least four video poker and blackjack machines. These games are untaxed and unregulated. One is branded with a Carolina Panthers logo.
The problem is video poker machines were outlawed in 2007, according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation along with slot machines and other "games of chance."
SBI officials don't know how many businesses statewide may be running illegal gambling operations. However, a former sweepstakes cafe owner says the industry can be lucrative.
"If I was still open today," said Terry Pennington, "I'd at least be pulling $10,000 to $20,000 a week."
FOX 46 showed the video to former CMPD officer Walter Bowers.
"It would certainly be illegal in accordance with the statute," said Bowers. "I don't think you need to be a world-class detective to kind of see some of the things that look shady."
FOX 46 interviewed Ink Link's owner Jeff Mauney back in 2016. At the time, he spoke out against a proposed ordinance that would restrict operating hours of tattoo shops.
"That’s just going to push tattoo artists out of the city of Gastonia," he said at the time.
This time, he did not want to go on camera.
"Please, air your story," Mauney told FOX 46 investigator Matt Grant by phone. "The only comment I have is it's not on my property. I don't lease the building. Nothing you recorded is located on my property that I lease."
Technically, that's true.
This cramped casino is actually located inside the abandoned adjacent clothing store, Head to Toe Urban Wear. The business is closed and the front door locked. The only way in, according to the landlord, is through a door inside Ink Link that connects the two shops. In addition to video poker, we also found tattoo supplies, suggesting this gambling den is also used as a storage for Ink Link.
The landlord tells FOX 46 that would be trespassing since Mauney does not have permission to use this space.
Because of what our undercover investigation found, Mauney and Ink Link Tattoos will be evicted, the landlord told FOX 46 by phone.
Off camera, we took our video to Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell. He said he "appreciated" us bringing this to his attention and will "discuss" our findings with local police.
After weeks of leaving messages, we still had questions. So, we came back to Ink Link. This time, our camera wasn't hidden.
"Hi Matt Grant, FOX 46. Are you running an illegal gambling operation?," asked Grant.
Two employees kept their back turned and said nothing. A third employee ducked into a room and closed the door.
"We're just trying to get some answers about why there's a gambling operation going on back there," said Grant.
Answers this business may soon have to give to law enforcement.
SBI officials say they work closely with local enforcement to arrest those who violate the state's gambling laws.