Usually one thinks of cattle or livestock when they picture branding, but throughout history slaves have been branded to transform their status from free individual, to owned property. Ancient Egyptian slaves were branded, as were African slaves shipped to America. Today, many may sigh in relief believing that man has progressed beyond such crude acts of subjugation, but they would be appalled to discover that branding still exists within the human trafficking industry. Every year more trafficking incidents are brought to light and, in many cases, the victims bear tattoos marking them as property of their oppressors.
Examples of tattooed trafficking victims continue to appear in cases around the globe. In Chicago, Daqunn Sawyer (P-Child) was convicted of sex trafficking 17 girls, many of whom were underage. He renamed the girls and forced them to get tattoos of his nickname, P-Child, or his favorite slogan, “Chedda make it betta.” In Madrid, police arrested twenty-two traffickers know as the “bar code pimps,” due to the bar code tattoos printed on their victims. Pimps and traffickers tattoo their victims as a way to psychologically control them and create a permanent mark of ownership. Dr Sophia Grant of Cook Children’s Medical Center says that tattooing “strips the identity of the child (victim), and it makes that child know, 'You are my property’.” This psychological bondage can make it harder for victims of trafficking to attempt to escape their oppressors. Traffickers also use tattoos to let other pimps know to whom the girls belong. In some cases, like in the bar-code trafficking ring, traffickers will tattoo numbers that represent the debt owed to the traffickers by the girls. Debt can be used as a means of financial control and exploitation in trafficking cases. Whatever form the tattoo takes, however, it always symbolizes loss of power and freedom.
These trafficking cases represent just a portion of those involving branding. In fact, since December of 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received nearly 150 calls across the nation related to tattoos and human trafficking. As tattoos have become a frequent indicator of trafficking, the term “distinguishing tattoo” now appears on lists published to help people identify trafficked victims. Authorities may also begin to look for tattoos of gang signs as markers of trafficking. Recent trends show gangs moving from the illegal drug trade into the trafficking trade because it is both lucrative and perceived as a low risk illegal endeavor. Victims may have tattooed symbols of the various gangs now involved in trafficking including the; Bloods, Crips, Folk, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and Hells Angels. If such a large percentage of trafficked victims have tattoos, wouldn’t tattoo artists be the most logical community to employ in the fight against human trafficking? The anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project thought so.
Recently Polaris Project published an article in the National Tattoo Association newsletter. This article explains the human trafficking issue and how tattoo artists can help by reporting any potential victims of trafficking that come into their shops. Though this is an important step in raising awareness within the tattoo community, to date, it has been the only effort made. Police, medical staff, truckers, and flight attendants, work in industries where one comes into daily contact with trafficked victims, thus they are receiving training on how to spot and respond to victims. Perhaps more tattoo artists could receive training, and a new force could join the ranks of those fighting human trafficking.
-Marianna Ernst, Intern
To learn more about tattoos used in human trafficking go to: