The Power of Tattoos to Cover Painful Pasts

Emily prepares to have a heart and a cross tattooed on her ankle by Charity Pinegar on June 29, 2023, to cover up a painful reminder of her past (CHANDAN KHANNA)
Emily prepares for Charity Pinegar to tattoo a heart with a cross on her ankle on June 29, 2023. This will cover a painful reminder from her past.

Many tattoos have deeper meanings. Emily’s “7” tattooed on her left leg represents a nightmare – a branding by a pimp.

He made all the women under control get it. This is a practice that human traffickers use.

It’s with great excitement that Emily, not her real name, waits in a tattoo parlor located in Florida.

Here, the painful reminders of her 17 years as a victim are transformed into a design of her choosing: a cross and a heart.

Three women run the tattoo parlor. The nonprofit Selah Freedom runs a program that fights sex slavery. The initiative to remove tattoos is just one of many services provided to women on the long journey back to freedom.

All is ready. Emily, 44, sat in a large, bright room with a framed picture of butterflies. She looked at the “7” for one last time.

Charity Pinegar, a tattoo artist of 40 years, carefully traces out the outline for the heart and cross. The transformation has already begun.

– Beats, drugs, and desperation

Stacey Efaw says that she believes tattoos dehumanize people.

Emily’s tattoos were the beginning of Emily’s descent into the dark, sex-driven world.

“I just wanted to be loved,” she says, recalling her traumatized childhood without affection that destroyed her confidence.

“Even though you injured me, it showed that you cared.” I was caught in the hands of the wrong people.

The other was her ex-boyfriend. Emily, a young woman in love with her ex-boyfriend, was persuaded to move from Florida to another state and join him, dreaming of their marriage to be together.

When she learned that her boyfriend was a pimp, it was too little, too late.

She saw him forcing other women into prostitution. Emily had her first taste of “life,” as survivors of human trafficking refer to it.

Emily found a job, and with her family’s help, she could escape before the man forced her to sell herself. It was almost as if the ink had already sealed her fate.

She was abused by violent men who pushed her into sex work.

They provided her with drugs that she used to avoid her painful reality temporarily.

“I became addicted and was more than willing to do what was asked,” she said.

6.3 Million victims worldwide

According to the International Labor Organization, about 6.3 million people will be victims of sexual abuse in 2021, four out of every five women or girls.

The United States has no figures for this problem, but in the same period, they received 7,500 phone calls to their hotline reporting cases of abuse.

Selah Freedom, a program for women that offers a two-year psychological therapy program, housing, clothing, and job training, has welcomed more than 6,000 women since 2011.

Tattoo cover-ups are also available.

Women can take time to accept help. Breanna Cole, 29 years old, learned about Selah’s freedom in 2016, but it took another year for her to join the program.

She was pushed by a difficult childhood and a father who wasn’t there to love her. She was only 13 when he started to abuse her sexually.

He would not be the last.

Cole, now working for Selah Freedom, recalls that drugs, homelessness, and sexually exploitative relationships were the next things to follow.

“I was spiritually broke.” “I knew I had to change my life, or I would die,” she said.

Cole never thought of herself as a victim, despite her abuse. She only realized this during therapy.

Then she realized that she had a right to be “saved and the possibility of helping other women.

Emily’s new lifestyle has required her to adjust to many drastic changes.

She recalls, “It was uncomfortable to be loved by someone who didn’t expect anything in return.”

She is now married with children and reconciled with her family.

The journey of a woman to a better life is not yet complete.

– ‘Now I’m alive –

Pinegar, the tattooist, fills her outline with dark ink. Emily’s skin was pierced with her pen.

Pinegar discovered that tattoos were used by human traffickers while tattooing an employee of Selah Freedom. She was shocked to learn that these crimes occurred close to her home. Now she is proud to be able to fight for the nonprofit.

Pinegar is finished with her work. She covers it with plastic and protects the tattoo using gauze.

Emily looks nervously at the “7” as if it might still be in place.

She says, “I felt like I was dead, but now I am alive.”

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