Tattoos are becoming a more popular form of self expression in the United States, with Americans spending roughly $1.65 billion on new ink every year. While most use tattoos as a way to represent their family or an important life experience, others use the permanent ink for a more sinister purpose.
Every year, thousands of young women become the victims of sex trafficking in the U.S., and often times abusers mark their victims by burning, scarring or tattooing symbols onto their skin. For those who find a way out of this modern form of slavery, these permanent scars are a constant reminder of the brutality they faced on a daily basis.
In an effort to help survivors reclaim their bodies, Jennifer Kempton founded Survivor’s Ink, a Columbus-based organization dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking cover up the scars and tattoos that once branded them as sex slaves. A survivor herself, Kempton organized the program this year after having her own tattoos covered.
About 5% of Americans pay to have tattoos covered up, which can range anywhere from $100 to over $500, depending on the size of the tattoo and the new design. Most sex trafficking survivors are struggling to make ends meet, and can’t save enough to pay for a costly cover-up tattoo. Survivor’s Ink provides these women with free cover-up tattoos with the help of donations and local tattoo artists.
One such artist is Charles Waldo. He charges the program only for the ink for tattoos and studio space, which comes out to between $50 and $80 — a small price for what could cost upwards of $500.
Having been a victim of sexual exploitation herself, Kempton knows how devastating it is to have to live with the scars left by an abuser.
“Having to look in the mirror every day and every time I got into the shower and saw these tattoos, it’s horrible for your self-worth,” said Kempton, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
With the help of Christina Conrad, an advocate for trafficking victims, Kempton was able to start her own road to recovery and find a sponsor to help have a tattoo that read “property of Salem,” a mark left by a former boyfriend, transformed into a heart locket and key. Kempton says the new tattoo is a representation of God unlocking her chains.
“There was this mark of darkness, but rather than just eliminating it … you’re transforming it, and I just think that is such a reflection of how God works. And it’s the way we change the world,” Conrad said.
In order to be eligible for Survivor’s Ink, recipients must be survivors of human trafficking or sexual exploitation, have been actively involved in a recovery program for at least six months, and the scar or tattoo must be associated with the exploitation or abuser.