The act of marking livestock with fire-heated marks to identify ownership goes back to the ancient Egyptians. Some tombs from as far back as 2700 BCE show branding of cattle with hieroglyphics. Greeks and Romans of that era used hot irons to identify their animals.
Brands are designed to permanently identify the owner of some animal. If your cows or horses got out of their pen and into your neighbor’s property, a brand was an easy way to figure out which animals were yours, especially if you had registered your brand with some organization or the state.
These days, fire-heated irons aren’t nearly as common. We’ve progressed to things like RFID chips, freeze brands, and lip or ear tattoos. But the purpose remains the same: a permanent mark of ownership.
Human trafficking is big business. The worldwide forced labor market – that’s the polite term these days for slavery – is estimated at $150 billion dollars. That reflects almost 21,000,000 people across the world. That’s the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Or everyone in Florida and New Mexico.
Out of those 20,900,000 people, 4,500,000 of them are sexual exploitation victims. That means they’re being raped. Daily.
That’s the population of Chicago and Houston. Or Philly, Phoenix and San Antonio. Or everyone in Kentucky. Or Louisiana.
They’re treated like cattle in lots of ways. They’re forced into small living areas, with lots of other victims. They’re beaten when they don’t do what their owners want them to do. And many of them are branded.
Just like cattle.
“Property of…” on their arm, or leg, or back. Usually it’s a tattoo. Sometimes it’s done with a knife, where they’re cut just deeply enough so that it scars. It might still be done with a heated piece of metal, like a paper clip.
And because these marks are designed to be permanent, they stay to remind the person of every single beating, and every single rape, and every single thing that someone else did to them when they were owned.
It’s hard enough to get away from a situation like that. Usually “escape” involves a body bag, or a shallow grave.
If you’re lucky enough to survive long enough to escape something like that, you’re still left with this permanent mark on your body, this reminder of your life. Imagine having to explain a “Property of Salem” tattoo to your next intimate partner, if you can lower your guard enough to get to that point with someone.
But here’s the big problem: it costs lots of money to get a tattoo removed, and even in cases of trafficking tattoos, most insurance plans won’t cover it, because it’s a cosmetic procedure. It takes two to ten visits at anywhere from $75 to $300 per session, sometimes paid up front. That’ll cost anywhere from $150 to $3,000, and the sessions have to be spread out over eight to ten weeks to properly measure progress.
Thankfully, the tattoo community is rising to the need. Groups like Survivor’s Ink help victims find artists who will cover the old tattoos for free. California makes state funds available for branded trafficking survivors (as well as former gang members trying to move on). It’s even spreading internationally. That’s awesome.
If you’re a tattoo artist:
- Consider starting something like this in your area. I guarantee there’s a need.
- Be on the lookout for human trafficking victims, and refuse to mark them as property.
- If there’s a local or state trade association, work together to raise awareness. If there’s not an association, start one.
- Develop a code to notify your shop employees that your customer isn’t there voluntarily, so they can call the police while you keep them occupied.
If you’re not an artist, and still want to help fight human trafficking, reach out to Survivor’s Ink, or Fresh Start. I’m sure they’d be glad to have your help.
Avoid missing another post about human trafficking or any of my other Voice topics by subscribing to the blog via the link in the right sidebar.