Art that adorns the flesh…
When you hear the words “human trafficking”, it’s understandable that the furthest thing from your mind would be tattooing or tattoos. For those of us who love tattoo, the word itself conjures up pleasant images, images that help to express a person’s feelings or thoughts or character. There is never any room for negative association with tattoo, though there is certainly no shortage of those who think that the art form has entirely negative connotations.
Unfortunately, in this case in particular, tattoo does initially have negative connotations. For many women who find themselves fleeing troubled home lives in America, the street eventually becomes their adopted home. From this wretched environment comes a desire to escape, which is all too often provided by drugs. When the drugs become an expensive habit, there are those who are willing to offer a steady supply, in exchange for prostitution. Many women find themselves addicted to drugs and eventually taken in by drug gangs who pimp the women out, abuse them and provide them with a steady flow of drugs. These women are seen as property and because of this status, are frequently tattooed with the names of their gangs or pimps.
‘Branding, whether by tattoo or intentional scarring, has become a disturbing characteristic of one particular subset of this thriving criminal operation. Pimp-led prostitution is widely considered one of the most brutal and violent of all forms of human trafficking found in the States. Brad Myles is chief executive ofPolaris Project, an influential US anti-trafficking organisation. “When you look at this particular type of trafficking,” he says, “where you have thousands of self-labelled pimps selling hundreds of thousands of women and children for profit in every state across America, the branding is all part of the extreme nature of the ways they control and profit from this trade.”
Myles says his organisation has come across hundreds of women and children who have had their arms, backs, legs, faces, breasts and even eyelids and gums marked with pimp’s names and gang tags or with barcodes, sexual slang words or dollar signs.
Others, like Jennifer, have “property of” tattoos on their groins or foreheads. In recent years, trafficking tattoos have also started to be seen in other countries, such as Spain and Romania, and there is anecdotal evidence of it happening in the UK. But it is now systemic in America.’
Okay, so that is very much the bad news. This is an ongoing epidemic that obviously doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Thankfully however, there is good news and yes, it does involve tattoo. One of the women who has gone through hell and back in terms of the life she led has managed to get free of drugs and prostitution and the gang who abused her. Not only has she gotten free, she has started an organisation called Survivors Ink which aids other young women in similar situations to get their tattoos covered up with something new, something different that can represent a fresh start on a tremendously important new life path. The tattoo artist who does the work for Survivors Ink is Charles “Chuck” Waldo. Waldo doesn’t charge for his tattooing services, he only charges for the cost of the ink and the rental space in the shop, costs which are covered by the Survivors Ink scholarship.
‘For Waldo, whose wiry frame is covered with fading tattoos, this work is also a form of redemption after a life of bank robberies, jail and “other very bad shit”, as he puts it. “I am nowhere near a saint – I have many ghosts in my closet – but with this work I know I’m impacting positively on someone’s life and that this will far outlive me,” he says.
“Tattoo art has been around since the beginning of human history, and I find it deplorable that this is happening. When I think about trafficking, I never thought it was something that happened here in the United States. It gives me an appreciation that whatever trauma and turmoil I’ve had in my life doesn’t even come close. But this gives me the opportunity to change their lives and help them move on.’
I write about many different aspects of tattoo on this blog and this is the first time that I’ve come across something that really impacted me on a guttural level. I had never considered that such horrors could exist in a first world country. Often I have heard of such things happening in far away nations where human rights begin and end with being a man. I never thought that even in America could people be taken as a piece of property and tattooed like cattle. I am so glad that there is something being done about this from the tattoo spectrum of things. It goes to show you how powerful tattoo is and what an impact it can have on someone’s life. The impact can be negative, but there are far more people out there who are willing to turn that negative into a positive. Well done everyone at Survivors Ink. Continue all the essential work you are doing and I hope more people will become aware of your cause so that you can get more funding together to help even more women in need.
Celebrities probably play one of the largest roles in making tattoo mainstream. I’m not saying this because I think it’s particularly good or bad, it’s just a fact. The amount of times I’ve seen huge media reports about the brand new and oh so scandalous tattoos of Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga or Katy Perry are too many to mention. I know that you know what I mean and I wouldn’t blame any of you for being sick to death of it. It’s really gotten to the point where celebrities just get tattooed because they know the media will fawn all over them and let’s face it: if there’s one thing that celebrities love, it’s some serious me time.
Not all celebrities are out for the media frenzy of a tattoo, however. There are many actors, musicians, authors, etc, who have tattoos and for whom getting tattooed isn’t an excuse for a media frenzy. I personally like Jonah Hill’s quiet and understated heart tattoo on his forearm, the centre of which reads: “Nancy Rules”. This was done in memory of his deceased grandmother. Adam Goldberg is another celebrity who has a huge amount of very impressive tattoos, all of which were done by the legendary tattooist Mark Mahoney.
Like most people, I’m not immune to celebrity – there are plenty of actors whose work I enjoy and respect. I don’t know how many of them have tattoos, but I think it’s always kind of cool to imagine how people would look with tattoos, specifically with a lot of tattoos. Seattle based artist Cheyenne Randall seems to think so too. In addition to digitally altering photos of famous celebrities and therefore giving us a glimpse of these people with tattoos, Randall’s work also makes us think about how we view people when they are tattooed. Do these celebrities still seem like the same people to you when they are covered in tattoos? Why or why not?
I’ve said it time and time again, but it bears repeating: Good tattoos aren’t cheap. I’ve also not hesitated to criticise and condemn scratchers for the harm they do to people and the harm they do to the craft of tattooing as a whole. If both of these statements are new to you, then you should seriously consider taking fifteen minutes out of your day and watching the video below. Actually, everyone should take fifteen minutes out of their day and watch the video below – it’s a great reminder.
Okay, my last post was a little short, so I’m going to more than make up for it here with this MASSIVE interview with tattoo artist extraordinaire, Aaron Coleman. Might want to sit back with some popcorn and a beer for this one…
Okay, so this isn’t that long, but it’s always nice to hear people talk about their tattoos, don’t you think? I think so. Check out comedienne Margaret Cho as she talks a bit about her tattoos and what they mean. I promise you’ll learn something.
I admit that I’m not a huge Kat Von D fan and that I haven’t really kept up with much of what she’s been doing with her life and career. I don’t have anything personal against her – although let’s face it, her reality TV series LA Ink went from vaguely interesting in its early seasons to a staged, over the top Hollywood nightmare by the end of its four year run. I think she’s a talented tattoo artist, but the Hollywood glam and glitz kind of overshadowed the tattooing and it all just made me completely lose interest in her as a tattooist. That being said, she did do a lot to get tattoo into the mainstream, so take from that what you will.
At any rate, despite what you or I may think of Kat Von D, she has had some rough times in the last few years. The disintegration of her terrible reality TV show was no loss, but her house burned down in 2010 and her cat died in the fire, which is a tough thing for anyone to go through. Most recently though, a fire blazed through the West Hollywood strip mall where her famed High Voltage Tattoo studio is located, causing damage to the shop itself.
About 50 firefighters battled the blaze, which was reported just after 4 a.m. in the 1200 block of North La Brea Avenue, according to Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan.
Firefighters removed valuable items from the tattoo shop and neighboring building, which was also damaged in the fire.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Bad luck for Kat and the other artists, as I’m sure that High Voltage is more than just a place of work for all of them. The worst part about all this is that the media was on site to record Kat’s reactions to the fire. Obviously any normal person would be stressed and upset over something like this happening. Unfortunately, the media thrives on finding people – especially celebrities – stressed and upset about anything. Kat asked them to leave her alone and got frustrated and knocked the hat off of a camera woman who refused to comply with her wishes. The end result is that the media turned around and produced sensationalist headlines like “Kat Von D Flips Out On Reporters After Tattoo Shop Fire” and “Kat Von D Attacks Reporters After Tattoo Shop Fire” and “Kat Von D Assaults Journalists After Tattoo Retailer Fire”. Give me a break. Please. Anyone who has seen the video can clearly see that no attack took place, no assault took place. She asked them to leave, swore at them and knocked the baseball cap off a camera woman’s head. That was all. Second of all, referring to anyone at TMZ as a “journalist” is more than a bit of a stretch.
For what it’s worth, I hope that the damage to High Voltage wasn’t too bad and that Kat and her crew are able to get back to work as quickly as possible. I hate sensationalist media who distort facts, so I just felt that I wanted to do my tiny part to step up and say that Kat was justified in being distraught. Her reaction to a fire and being pestered by hack paparazzi wasn’t shocking, nor was it assault or an attack.