Six years ago, Rob Beattie befriended a rescuing agent in Los Angeles who helped people escape human trafficking. She told him how traffickers use tattooing to brand their captives.
“I couldn’t set it aside,” he says. “It really hung onto my heart.”
Rob himself is covered in body art. At age 17, he got his first two tattoos—crosses on the inside of both his forearms—at the same time. To him, tattooing is a deeply personal form of art, and he felt appalled at the idea of survivors having to bear the scars of their traumatic history.
While getting a tattoo in Los Angeles, Rob asked his close mate, an artist, what he would charge to do a cover-up for a survivor of human trafficking. His friend told him he wouldn’t take a cent—and he’d shut the shop down to give the survivor total privacy. Another artist mate said he’d do the same thing.
The rescue agent connected him with a young woman who had been tattooed on her neck with her trafficker’s gang name. The artists covered it up with a beautiful floral design.
He thought it was a one-time thing. But with the massive demand—and the support to meet it—he couldn’t stop there. And so Still Grace Remains was born—a nonprofit that provides aftercare for survivors of sex trafficking in the form of tattoo cover-up and laser tattoo removal.
The insidious use of tattoos in human trafficking
Traffickers use tattoos to mark ownership over their victims and dehumanise them, so they’ll view themselves as property. Common types of branding tattoos include bar codes, symbols representing the trafficker and his gang affiliation, and even dollar signs with the amount of money a victim was sold for. “This is a horrific practice because it forces the survivor to associate themselves with a number and place their value there,” Rob says. Images depicting chains and bondage are also common.
The nonprofit has even seen portraits, faces, and names of the victim’s trafficker—overtly labeling the victim as another person’s property.
“The tattoo, the brand, is sometimes an afterthought, but it can actually be the most detrimental part because it’s such a reminder,” Rob asserts.
Branding tattoos can be found anywhere on the survivor’s body, though they’re often located in very prominent places, like the face or neck. One report had dollar signs surrounding the female’s private parts, while another had these markings on her chest. In one of the more challenging removals, the trafficker’s name had been written above the survivor’s left eyebrow. Because she drove other victims around, he wanted other traffickers to know who she “belonged” to. “It’s meant to take someone away from who they really are,” Rob explains.
How tattoo removal changes the lives of survivors
Erasing or covering survivors’ branding tattoos erases the constant reminder of their abuse while removing barriers to entering school or the professional realm. Even though the world is growing much more accepting of tattoos in general, having tattoos in places like the face, neck, or hands can bring a lot of stigmas, Rob notes. “The trauma faced by these survivors is unfathomable,” laments Rob.
The truth about human trafficking
Human trafficking usually doesn’t look like what people think, Rob asserts. It doesn’t typically begin with a stranger snatching a person in a parking lot, or with a container ship of victims from overseas. More often, it’s someone the victim is close to—or even a family member.
Trafficking can also exploit people for their labour, although sex trafficking is more common.
Where it happens
“This stuff is happening in America, Australia, and everywhere in between,” says Rob. It affects boys and girls, men and women, and it happens in cities globally, to people of every race, in every type of neighbourhood—yet many of us don’t realise that it affects people in our own community.
People often misjudge the woman standing on the corner and believe she’s a drug addict who is selling her body to support her addiction, Rob notes. They dismiss her as a druggo, but they don’t consider that she might have been forced into that situation by someone she knows.
There’s also a false narrative that pimps protect sex workers, he says, when in actuality, these pimps are trafficking them.
“The reality of trafficking is that it’s in your city, and in your neighbourhood,” – Rob Beattie
How it begins
There are many “on-ramps” to exploitation by traffickers, Rob explains. Often, the victims are having a difficult time and feeling disconnected from society. “Traffickers are very good at sniffing out people who are vulnerable,” he emphasises. They prey on runaways and people with a history of childhood trauma. They look for kids and teens who are hanging out in the streets late at night. To survive, these victims often find themselves doing things they never thought they’d consider.
In Australia, young girls are a primary target. Often, an older man promises them a better life, and because many of them had an absentee father, they’re easily manipulated. The trafficker usually works to win the victim’s confidence over time if he’s not close to her already. “It’s not an overnight thing,” Rob asserts. “It’s a grooming process where they trust and oftentimes love their actual trafficker.” After the trafficker wins the victim’s trust, he begins asking her to spend time with one or two different men, which builds up to being raped 10–40 times a day by many different consumers.
Partnership with The Removery
Still Grace Remains began working with The Removery around the beginning of the pandemic. Rob spoke with the manager at their downtown Los Angeles location, then talked with the founder about a potential partnership. They both felt thrilled about the idea.
Completely erasing a tattoo rather than covering it up is ideal, Rob emphasises. Often, the survivor would not have chosen to get a tattoo in the spot the abuser chose and simply wants it to be gone—especially because the rising trend in trafficking is to brand the neck and faces of victims. Completely erasing the tattoo affirms the survivor’s autonomy and personhood. Because of the rise of human trafficking, these tattoos are becoming more and more common, meaning SGR needed a way to remove them completely, says Rob. The partnership with The Removery helped make that possible.
Rob has seen moving success stories from tattoo removal in the past. One survivor in California had been tattooed down her jawline, and SGR arranged for a private contractor to laser-remove it. An incredibly strong person, she’s now working on finishing her counseling degree so she can help others recover from abusive situations.
The woman whose trafficker’s name was written above her eyebrow is undergoing laser removal, and she’s working to help other survivors start a new life.
Currently, Still Grace Remains works primarily in America while beginning operations in Australia and the UK, but have their eyes set towards establishing a global reach, says Rob. They have a network of artists across the globe who are excited to assist in these efforts.
How can people help?
Becoming a regular SGR donor who gives a little as $5 or $10 a month to support survivors can change people’s future, says Rob. Taking time to tell people what human trafficking really looks like can also make a difference, both in person and on social media. “The eye can’t see what the eye doesn’t know,” he emphasises. “A lot of the time, people will step over something that they don’t understand, because they don’t understand it.”
You can also help by volunteering with SGR or a local organisation.
We can also help change the culture that allows human trafficking to persist through the choices we make, says Rob. For instance, we can steer clear of products that rely on forced labour, using apps that show whether they were produced ethically. Rob speaks to men about the exploitation that persists in the hardcore pornography industry, as many women who appear in these films are there under duress. Through a massive culture shift, Rob believes we can eradicate the demand for human trafficking—but it will take all of us to do it.
NAPNAP Partners for Vulnerable Youth, “Tattoos of Human Trafficking Victims”
The Polaris Project, “Myths, Facts, and Statistics”
WBIR, “Here’s What Human Trafficking Actually Looks Like and How to Spot, Stop It”