In many cultures, tattoos are common and often celebrated pieces of art with symbolic meaning for their hosts. Tattoos can carry a much darker meaning for a trafficked person as a price tag, an advertisement, or a mark of modern slavery. This stems from the trafficking tactic of ‘branding’ survivors with tattoos, which are developed to serve a series of purposes. Simply put, it is a form of psychological bondage imposed on the survivors. Human trafficking remains a profitable crime despite the collective effort of various global law enforcement organizations, non-profits groups, and independent anti-trafficking communities to combat human trafficking operations. According to the U.S. Department of State, human trafficking continues to generate an estimated $150 billion worldwide with a large portion of that revenue passing through legitimate financial businesses. Since human trafficking is an intrinsically clandestine activity, it will remain difficult to detect unless subtle indicators are recognized and exploited to aid in disrupting participating criminal enterprises.
For traffickers, overt markings, like tattoos, provide benefits that outweigh the risk of exposure that stems from them. Brandings highlight the survivor as a marketable commodity, act as a notification of the controlling service provider to would-be customers, and can serve as a boundary marker related to gang territories. Survivors are often coerced into getting symbolic tattoos to prove loyalty to their captures, or seek such tattoos voluntarily as a byproduct of the abuse they have suffered. Although there are some hyper-localized trends in the style of branding, the principal purpose of the markings is to remain recognizable. It is common for survivors controlled by a single trafficker or group to have the same tattoo. Survivors may bare the brands of various gangs with known human trafficking enterprises such as the Bloods, Folk Nation, Crips, Latin Kings, Hell’s Angels, or similar syndicates.
The style and range of branding tattoos is extensive. While these tattoos vary by region, traffickers commonly brand survivors with the trafficker’s own name to show ownership. The tattoo of the trafficker’s name may be accompanied by simple shapes with little line work and can include symbols or words such as crown accompanied by the words ‘loyalty’, ‘respect’, or a name. Following a widely publicized arrest in Spain, it emerged that some traffickers had taken to using tattooed barcodes on survivors as a means of indicating their value or the ‘freedom’ debt ‘owed’ to the trafficking organization. While the branding marks may occasionally be professional quality, many are non-elaborate, homespun, and poorly executed. Although these general patterns and additional motifs of wealth, names, expletives, and other symbology may not be all inclusive, confirmed branding tattoos associated to human trafficking survivors can be documented, studied, and used to raise awareness.
The composition and location of branding tattoos varies significantly. Survivors commonly have tattoos located on their neck, arms, hips, back, or above the groin. One survivor’s account detailed how she was branded several times in different locations on her body; one tattoo, which read ‘Property of Salem,’ above her groin, the name ‘King Munch’ on her neck, and other marks inked on her back.
“Tattoo recognition is a critical factor in identifying victims whom may be otherwise missed and is the first and necessary step in setting them on a pathway to freedom and recovery.” ⁶
Despite the possibility of cruder techniques, some human trafficking survivors do have interactions with professional tattoo artists. These interactions provide a rare chance to recognize survivors, document the activity, and share information with local law enforcement. The possibility for tattoos artists to recognize branding tattoos and potential survivors has led several anti-trafficking non-profit organizations to organize community awareness events. Courses and seminars outlining the specifics of branding tattoos are now offered globally to tattoo artists looking to help anti-trafficking efforts. This includes providing necessary training not only to identify tattoos, but also the signs of trafficking that survivor may exhibit. In an effort to support survivors, many tattoo artists have partnered with anti-trafficking organizations to provide cover-ups tattoos for these survivors.
As data on this topic is complied, shared, and studied, the details of these tattoos can become a powerful counter-human trafficking tool for investigators and analysts. The specific details of the markings can be compiled and attributed to specific organizations or individuals. Correlating the areas where survivors were forced to labor, where they came from, living quarters, and other geographic data, which can be used to uncover trafficking routes and recruitment locations. Cooperative relationships with tattoo parlors can further fill fact-finding gaps. Much of this information can also be paired with social media posts, local news articles, and police reports. Stakeholders in the anti-trafficking field should understand the importance of gathering this information. Careful analysis and data sharing are critical to overall disruption and identification efforts.
If you or your organization would like more information on human trafficking, branding tattoos, or related information, the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons produced several reports on the topic available at this site. For a more international perspective visit USAID’s Countering Trafficked Persons website or Anti-Trafficking International homepage. If you are aware of human trafficking information, then please report it to your local law enforcement organization or the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-973-7888 or Text BeFree (233733) (también disponible en inglés).
Night Owl Reconnaissance is committed to utilizing our specialized techniques and experienced staff toward our anti-trafficking strategies. Our investigators and survivor services coordinators are on standby to assist with human-trafficking related issues. If you or a loved one are seeking assistance in these or related matters, feel free to contact us at our website. i
1 U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2020. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. June 2020.
2 De Graaf, MIa. “The return of slave-branding: Modern-day sex traffickers are bringing back vile practice as girls tell how they are forced to get a tattoo of their pimp’s name or insignia to mark them out as his ‘property.'” Daily Mail, Sept. 2015, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/ article-3224738/ Modern-day-sex-traffickers-bringing-branding-used-slaves-having-names-insignia-tattooed-victims-mark- property.html.
3 Ernst, Marianna. “Marked for the Trade: How Tattoos are being used in Human Trafficking Today.” International Organization for Adolescents, June 2012, iofa-talk.blogspot.com/2012/07/marked-for-trade-how-tattoos-are-being.html.
4 Riley, Erika. “Heartly House educates tattoo artists on red flags of human trafficking.” Frederick News Post, FNP Printing and Publishing., Feb. 2020, www.fredericknewspost.com/news/social_issues/heartly-house-educates-tattoo-artists-on-red-flags-of-human-trafficking/article_781933bc-02ac-521e-82be-1b8151f25f56.html.
5 Heckle, Harold. “Spanish police arrest ‘bar code pimps’ gang.” AP News, Mar. 2012, apnews.com/article/arrests-archive-prostitution-madrid-c165fbacf30b4db7a3d658aad3562f9d.
6 Fang, Shelly, et al. “Tattoo Recognition in Screening for Victims of Human Trafficking.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 206, no. 10, Oct. 2018.