Tattoos often are used as an artistic way to celebrate individuality. But for some sex trafficking survivors, a tattoo has a darker, harmful meaning — stripping them of their identity and branding them with the mark of a sex slave.
Victims of sex trafficking — defined as when an individual engages in a commercial sex act as the result of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion or any combination of such means — often bear physical and permanent reminders of their pain, such as brands on their skin that can re-traumatize survivors every time they look in a mirror.
These brands serve as a mark of property, said Suzen Tattoozen-Tanton, a tattoo artist and owner of Whiteaker Tattoo Collective.
“We live in a society where people think it’s OK to touch people who have tattoos or ask invasive questions about them,” Tatoozen-Tanton said. “These women have been through these horrific experiences, and these are usually their only tattoos. Imagine having someone touch it or ask you about it — that’s horrible.”
Forced on trafficking victims against their will, trafficking brands usually depict a trafficker’s identity or geographical area of control, a region in which they are trafficked or their trafficker’s official area of operation. They commonly appear on the lower back area, near the groin, chest, and on the back of the neck or thighs, although they can appear anywhere on the body. When they appear on the neck or legs and are upside down, that’s usually a good indication of a trafficking brand, Tattoozen-Tanton said.
Survivors may be tattooed with numerous smaller brands — known as mile markers or milestones — that are depicted with symbols or letters. These may represent any number of different sexual acts the victim has been forced to do, such as a mark for every 50 individuals they’ve had sex with.
″ ... they’re just traumatized over and over, and they get these mile markers anytime something major happens to them,” Tattoozen-Tanton said.
Some traffickers even have their name tattooed on their victim’s faces.
Diana Janz, owner and founder of Hope Ranch Ministries, a survivor-centered fellowship and nonprofit in Lane County, said she’s worked with a survivor who had the name of her trafficker forcibly tattooed on her face, covering a large portion of her cheek.
“It’s just devastating for (survivors),” Janz said. “This poor girl couldn’t cover it up with a shirt or sweater, and she was judged for it. It was on her face and everyone saw it before they saw her.”
Despite what many may assume is a big city problem, sex trafficking happens in Eugene-Springfield and elsewhere in Lane County. Due to its proximity to the Interstate 5 corridor, Lane County’s sex trafficking industry thrives, enabled by a fractured system of welfare services and lack of necessary resources to help survivors leave “the life,” and rebuild their own.
Survivors need support, resources that help them attain basic needs such as food and shelter but also immense understanding and patience when it comes dealing with the psychological trauma sex trafficking creates. Even with that support, having to look at an unwanted tattoo every day can re-traumatize a survivor and hinder their ability to heal.
Janz started Hope Ranch to help survivors on their journey to healing. She builds trusting relationships with survivors and goes with them to the grocery store, doctors appointments and, even, job interviews. Survivors want to feel normal, she said, and having someone there to do normal things with can be extremely helpful.
Several survivors Janz worked with had trafficking brands. A big problem with having visible tattoos, Janz said, is they can keep a survivor from making the needed connections with people and attaining what they need to build a new life.
″(Brands) are so demeaning and humiliating for these women,” Janz said. “Employers might not hire them, and people will stare and judge them in public and hurt their healing process.”
Transformation Ink gives survivors who were branded the chance to apply for a tattoo that covers the brand, free of cost. Laser tattoo removal can be expensive and painful and often not an option for a survivor struggling to get back on their feet.
The new tattoo, designed by Tattoozen-Tanton and the survivor together, is meant to cover the brand and divert focus to another part of the body with a piece of artwork the survivor can be proud of — erasing the physical mark of their trafficking traumas.
To apply for Transformation Ink, survivors are required to be out of the sex trafficking life, in recovery and in counseling for at least six months. Survivors are asked to share their story and explain how program would help them in a short essay, and also make a commitment to write a statement about what the cover-up meant to them once the tattoo is finished.
The application process helps Truett and Tattoozen-Tanton determine the level of need and where the survivor is in their healing process. It also helps them weed out people who just want free tattoos, which happens more than she expected, Tattoozen-Tanton said.
“We use this application not to pick and choose, but to make sure a survivor is at the point in their life where they are ready to take the next step,” Truett said. “We want to make sure it will help them.”
In one application letter, a survivor who was forced into trafficking by her father and uncle and was branded at 9, discussed the trauma she relived every day when she looked in the mirror.
The woman was accepted into the program and Tattoozen-Tanton spent hours working to cover a large tattoo that stretched from hip to hip.
While Transformation Ink is meant to be a positive and healing experience, it also holds survivors accountable and gives them a sense of responsibility. Survivors who are accepted are asked to sign a contract saying they will be on time and that they agree to keep their appointments.
“Cover-ups are a harder process that take more skill and knowledge to do,” Tattozen-Tanton said. “This ensures it will last and will truly cover, not just camouflage.”
The sessions are an emotional process that can bring up trauma. Because of this, Truett and Tattoozen-Tanton take extra measures to make the survivor feel comfortable. They set up a one-on-one session to build a relationship of openness and safety. Both talk with the survivor and try to share their own stories to establish trust. However, talking isn’t always comfortable for everyone, so they make sure the environment is comfortable for each individual survivor. For example, Tattoozen-Tanton closes her shop, Whiteaker Collective, to complete the tattoo in private sessions.
“Once they get to this point in their life after having (been through a trafficking situation), it’s a huge part of that rehabilitation,” Tatoozen-Tanton said. “It really is like the step of reclaiming your body back.”
The pair are in the process of establishing Transformation Ink as a nonprofit. But for now the project is funded by Tattoozen-Tanton and Truett, as well as donations that come from people learning about the project on their website or by word of mouth.
Originally, Truett’s business made small donations to Transformation Ink and the pair held a fundraising event with a local alternative church that raised $1,200, which helped complete a survivor’s full back cover-up tattoo.
“We haven’t done a lot of active crowdfunding in the past,” Truett said. “We want this to be a community awareness program, and people are welcome to make donations on their own, because they feel this matters.”
Overall, the pair have helped eight survivors through Transformation Ink. While they have the ability to help four survivors a year, over the last four years they’ve helped two a year. According to the pair, the survivors that contact them about the project usually come from word-of-mouth referrals. Both use their social media presence and following to share success stories to reach people as well.
Truett and Tattoozen-Tanton developed the project after meeting at the philanthropy event, Ink for Autism. Each came from difficult backgrounds, and while they said thankfully those situations never amounted to trafficking, they narrowly avoided it.
“Before going to college, I spent about 10 years being gang-affiliated in the Midwest,” Truett said. “I saw a lot of this stuff happening, luckily I escaped that fate.”
After Truett was able to get out of the gang lifestyle, and she focused on getting an education that would allow her to regain control. Truett now runs a life coaching business, The Resilience Project, that focuses on women empowerment.
“I feel that artists have a voice in this community,” Tattoozen-Tanton said. “And that we can do something substantial with that voice.”
This project was developed by Destiny Alvarez and Dana Sparks, Charles Snowden Excellence in Journalism reporting and multimedia interns for The Register-Guard. Follow Destiny on Twitter @DesJAlvarez or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter @danamsparks or email email@example.com.