Restoration: Phoenix nonprofit removes tattoos from intercourse trafficking survivors

Gina Jernukian was working half time when she started to note one thing in her tattoo studio that made her uneasy.

“I began having unusual tattoos and unusual males in my studio,” she
stated. “I imply, I used to be stunned. They had been impolite. They had been imply. The
woman didn’t communicate in any respect – solely the man did, and he would yell at me.”

“So I lastly requested somebody, ‘What is that this?’ And a good friend of mine
stated, ‘It’s in all probability a branding.’ I stated, ‘What?’ I had no thought. I had
no thought. I didn’t know.”

Jernukian, a everlasting make-up artist who lives in Phoenix, determined to
discover out extra. She did some on-line analysis and attended conferences of
teams that had been all too accustomed to branding – the apply of
tattooing or marking intercourse trafficking victims, largely girls, with the
names or symbols of those that victimize them.

Over half of intercourse trafficking survivors have a branding mark that
impacts their psychological well being and impedes their therapeutic and reintegration
into society.

A 2022 examine
that surveyed over 80 survivors within the U.S. confirmed they rated the necessity
and impression of free laser-removal companies at a excessive degree for restoration.

“Many victims are branded by their traffickers with tattoos conveying
possession, together with names, symbols, and barcodes,” researchers wrote. “
We consider there’s a better want at a nationwide degree to help these
survivors, permitting them to reclaim their our bodies.

Jernukian refused to proceed being inadvertently complicit. She based Soul Survivor Ink,
a nationwide nonprofit group that helps survivors of human
trafficking discover suppliers close to them who can cowl, take away and lighten
branding tattoos. The service has expanded to 39 areas within the U.S.,
with a number of areas in Arizona and Texas.

Eradicating the proof of trauma is a posh and normally expensive course of. Jernukian and her accomplice artists accomplish that totally free.

Though there are organizations that assist survivors, Jernukian stated that branding removing is an space that’s uncared for.

“A number of the first issues that applications will do is get them medical
therapy, dental, housing, meals, clothes,” Jernukian stated. “They’ll
signal them up for college, some counseling, meditation, however one factor they
don’t provide is branding removing or cover-ups. So despite the fact that they’re
beginning to heal on the within, they’re nonetheless not healed on the skin.
They’ve to have a look at this each single day, and it brings them proper
again to the place they had been.”

Traffickers mark pores and skin as a message

There have been greater than 10,360 circumstances of human trafficking, involving
16,710 people in 2021 alone, in line with essentially the most in depth intercourse
trafficking knowledge units within the U.S., the Nationwide Human Trafficking Hotline. Specialists say that’s possible solely a fraction of the true quantity.

In keeping with the Polaris Undertaking, a nationwide group that
combats intercourse trafficking, practically 75% of intercourse trafficking victims are
girls. Though knowledge is troublesome to come back by, numerous sources estimate
that as much as half of victims have been branded by their traffickers.

Generally the ladies are branded with a tattoo, and generally,
Jernukian stated, “the trafficker can take a knife and carve a logo on
their head or on their physique. After which, even going additional than branding,
generally they’re burned.”

Tattoos are normally black and white and customary themes are cash and
loyalty, in line with Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Intercourse Trafficking Intervention Analysis workplace at Arizona State College. The markings could be outstanding on the sufferer’s face or neck to ship a message to the sufferer and the world.

“However generally it’s hidden; it’s close to their physique, their personal elements
– that is mostly a message to consumers or different traffickers,” she stated.

Not solely do traffickers use branding as a approach to present possession, stated
Roe-Sepowitz, however “for the sufferer, there’s additionally the psychology of ‘I
belong to him.’ It is a connection that feels very actual. And her
trauma bond with him is deepened by the tattoo or the model or the

As a everlasting make-up artist, Jernukian had the abilities to assist, so
she reached out to native organizations in 2014 and stated, “Hey, that is
what I do. Ship me anybody totally free. Simply ship them.’”

At first, solely a few girls got here to her for assist. Then, she
started getting calls from trafficking shelters twice a month. “And it
grew and grew,” Jernukian stated. “Individuals had been driving three, 4 hours
to come back see me … It began blowing up. I believed, ‘I don’t know
do that. I don’t know assist so many individuals.”

“Then I used to be reminded that the Lord doesn’t name the geared up. He
equips the referred to as. And in order that was it. It took off and… we based Soul
Survivor Ink.”

Therapeutic by erasing the markers of trauma

Each time a intercourse trafficking survivor appears to be like at a pressured branding, it
can really feel as if they’re nonetheless in bondage, Jernukian stated. Some survivors
say that “it bodily hurts, like they’ll really feel it, and a few even strive
to scrape it off themselves.”

However many organizations that assist survivors aren’t conscious of the
significance of this sort of trauma, and the way it impacts a survivor’s
psychological and emotional well being, making it more durable to heal.

When working with survivors, tattoo removing typically appears like a bonus
in comparison with well being care, housing, and security, Roe-Sepowitz stated. However
as soon as she and others began working with survivors over time, the impression
these brandings have on survivors’ therapeutic grew to become obvious.

“I had a shopper who had a really vital, very dramatic white
supremacy image on the again of her neck and it was impeding her life,”
Roe-Sepowitz stated.

Nonetheless, making the choice to take away the branding isn’t at all times a
easy one, particularly as a result of so many victims are emotionally related
to their traffickers.

The Polaris Undertaking
estimates that 4 out of 10 victims had been trafficked by a member of their
personal households or had been recruited by an intimate accomplice or a wedding

“It may be years later and nonetheless quite a lot of them wrestle with that
psychological abuse,” Jernukian stated. “They nonetheless really feel like they’re betraying
this trafficker or this pimp, despite the fact that it’s been a few years or
nonetheless lengthy.They nonetheless really feel the betrayal. And generally it’s extraordinarily
emotional after we’re both masking or eradicating it.”

“It’s not like, ‘Get this off me,’ ” Jernukian stated. “It takes quite a bit
for them to make that call. As a result of they’re nonetheless below management of
this pimp. They really feel like they’re betraying him. For us, it’s like,
‘Lady, go get that achieved.’ And so they’re like, ‘Not but’.”

“Oftentimes our shoppers actually didn’t have an enormous help community and
their traffickers grew to become their households. They made them really feel like they
belong,” Roe-Sepowitz stated.. “That tattoo reminds them that they belong.
And even despite the abuse and trauma they’re experiencing, it’s
kind of higher than the choice being alone or homeless or hungry.”

Many victims weren’t pressured to get branded, Jernukian added. They
had been manipulated into it. “A number of the women would say one thing like,
‘You haven’t any thought what it took to earn this tattoo.’ They had been proud to
do it.”

However as soon as they’ve escaped their traffickers and have begun to heal,
“they appear again and marvel how did I get there? How did my mentality go
that far?”

Wiping away tears

Natalie Grace, a 29-year-old Houston resident, related with Soul
Survivor Ink in 2022. She desires to take away two non-consensual tattoos
which have marked her face since she was 24.

Grace had been seeing a charismatic tattoo artist whereas coping with a
ingesting drawback. Someday, after closely ingesting, she handed out subsequent
to him.

“I awoke with these teardrops … tattoos on my face,” Grace stated,
pointing at black teardrops positioned on the outer nook of her eyes. ”He
simply did that whereas I used to be handed out as a joke as a result of he had them too
in the very same place. It was sort of like saying ‘you’re mine now’.”

She couldn’t get a job, pay for meals or housing. “And that’s what led
me to being homeless and couch-hopping. That’s how I ended up within the
human trafficking scenario.”

Her trafficker was later arrested and sentenced to jail. However the teardrops are a day by day reminder of her previous.

“It’s like a SKU quantity for a shoe,” she stated. “Wherever that shoe goes, it’s gonna lead again to the producer.”

“ Until I’m really sporting make-up and hiding the tattoos, it’s
like, I can’t actually be myself. I’ve to fake to be another person.
And it’s horrible.”

Grace was related with Jernukian by means of different survivors who had
been helped by Soul Survivors Ink. Collectively, they’re engaged on discovering
a tattoo artist who will take away the tattoo from Grace’s face. Earlier than I
related with Soul Survivor Ink, “I by no means even thought that getting
them eliminated was an possibility,” Grace stated.

“I would like them utterly eliminated,” she stated. “I’ve at all times been a
skilled and I need to be again to my previous skilled self. That is
not me. This isn’t what I used to be meant to do.”

“It’s time to wipe my tears.”

Rising from a branding to a butterfly

Tattoo removing takes time and could be achieved by means of totally different
approaches. Usually, tattoos are tougher to take away than they’re to
place on the pores and skin. A tattoo’s shade, measurement and site, the depth of
the ink, the individual’s pores and skin tone and tolerance for ache all have an effect on the
course of, Jernukian
If a Soul Survivor Ink artist can’t take away a branding, they may attempt to cowl it with one other tattoo.

Survivors get to choose what they need on their physique, Jernukian stated.
It could be one thing significant to them, like a butterfly. After which
they might look within the mirror and see this tattoo. That’s lovely.”

“Whether or not it’s coated or eliminated, it’s like this weight is lifted,”
Jernukian stated. “One of many survivors advised me “Is it bizarre if I say that
I really feel like a baby proper now? I really feel childlike and giddy. It’s like
going again to earlier than this was achieved, ?”

Soul Survivor has grown exponentially since Jernukian began it in
Phoenix in 2016. It now serves girls in 56 cities and 22 states.

“We have to be in each state.” Jernukian stated. We “proceed to hunt associates. The objective is to be in each state by 2025.”

The group helps fund greater than 1,000 procedures a yr,
Jernukian stated. Monetary donations and volunteers’ time and experience
covers the prices, with no cost to victims, she stated.

Artists who volunteer are reimbursed by Soul Survivor Ink for the
price of ink and needles, normally between $125 and $170 a session.

“Daily, we’re looking for assets and enroll extra folks,”
Jernukian stated. “We simply want to search out those who have a coronary heart to serve.
And after we do, it’s an ideal match.”