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.