Tattoo Artists Learning to Identify Human Trafficking, Offer Resources

Jesse Neese owns Nuclear Ink Custom Tattoo & Skateshop in Omaha. (Becca Costello, NET News)
Listen to this story: 

June 28, 2019 - 6:45am

The national human trafficking hotline identified nearly 300 human trafficking victims in Nebraska between 2012 and 2017, and that number increases every year. Tattoo artists are joining the fight against human sex trafficking. 

Jesse Neese has been tattooing in Omaha for 20 years. He’s tattooed a lot of people.

"Doing someone’s tattoo can be kind of intimate," Neese says. "It’s definitely a more close relationship than a lot of other people in your life. There has to be a certain amount of trust between the client and the tattoo artist."

Some designs can take hours to complete. Advocates and law enforcement see that time as an opportunity – it’s often a contact point for victims of human sex trafficking.

That’s because it’s pretty common for a trafficker to force a woman to get a tattoo, of a bar code, a dollar sign, or the trafficker’s street name.

"And it's very harmful for them, it's very harsh, because they have to live with it for the rest of their lives," says Shireen Rajaram, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health. She’s been researching human trafficking for years, and says it’s hard to identify trafficking because it’s subtle and hidden.  

She recently organized a workshop in Omaha, speaking to nearly a hundred tattoo artists about red flags to watch out for:

"Whether they don't even have identification, they don't even know where they are, and they have a very scripted conversation in there, they don't make eye contact, they have a very glazed look maybe," she says. "So I think it's just keeping you're making your instincts be really sharp and knowing what to look for."

Shireen Rajaram speaks to tattoo artists at a recent workshop about human trafficking. (Becca Costello, NET News)

Neese attended the workshop and says he’s noticed some of those red flags himself.

"It’s not always an indicator, but if you start seeing people who are getting the same name tattooed on multiple people, things like that, you can start to question," Neese says. "And we get to form a relationship with the people we tattoo so even during that brief period we can talk to them a bit and at least kind of get a gauge of whether their world is okay or not." 

Many traffickers aren’t seeking out professional artists for these branding tattoos. But artists are still likely to come into contact with survivors.

Chad Miller is an investigator with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. He works with the FBI and other agencies on human trafficking cases.

"They're going to see those because they may see somebody wanting to come in, get a cover up, or they may have a girl come in that wants to get a professional tattoo," Miller says. "But that tattoo artist may recognize other tattoos that are on them that are not professional, that could be brands."

Miller says a tattoo shop can be a valuable resource for his investigations.

A sign at a recent workshop about Human Trafficking and the Tattoo Industry. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"If you think that something's going on, if you've got security cameras in your parlor, or you've got security cameras in your hotel, keep all the footage for me, of the people involved," Miller says. "If you can discreetly get license plate numbers, without putting yourself at risk, get me license plate numbers, descriptions."

But an interaction with a potential trafficking victim is also a rare chance to let them know what kind of help is available.

"You don't have to use the word trafficking, you don't have to even use the word abuse," Rajaran says. "You can just say, like, there's the Women's Center for Advancement, and they provide these services and stuff, if you know of anybody else that might need it. "And just keeping those conversations going." 

A tattoo parlor is one of just a few places where trafficking victims are likely to be noticed. Another is health care providers.

Nebraska Assistant Attorney General Glen Parks points to a study that says 88% of sex trafficking victims came into contact with a medical professional during the time they were being trafficked.  

"This is a window of opportunity that we really want to make sure we don't, that doesn't slip by us," Parks says. "They're often kept out of the public eye, but if they get sick, of course, they have to bodily come to some health facility. And so we've been training healthcare providers with signs and who to call if you see something." 

Parks is Coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force, and has worked to bring trafficking into the public awareness.

He hopes to get more tips from all Nebraskans, not just tattoo artists and doctors.

"That really is how a lot of cases are initiated," Parks says. "And I think once Nebraskans are educated to that, then they can really be a partner in this fight." 

(Courtesy: Nebraska Attorney General's Office)

Investigators say they’re aware of only a fraction of human trafficking cases. 

Prof. Rajaram says when she talks to survivors, she hears a consistent question: where were you?

"Why did you not recognize this? Why did you not even like, say something to me about services or whatever? Why? Why weren't you understanding? You know, it's like, we fail them. We fail survivors by just being totally oblivious and clueless and disbelieving them."

Rajaram and Miller say they don’t want tattoo artists to stage a rescue – but being a resource for a victim can make all the difference. Neese agrees.

"We can potentially be someone that they feel safe around, and if they don’t feel safe around anyone else in their life, that might be somebody that they can reach out to later on if they did decide to seek help."

With trafficking cases reported all across Nebraska, even in small towns, advocates and law enforcement hope all Nebraskans educate themselves and join the fight.

If you witness suspected human trafficking, you can call in a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888.



blog comments powered by Disqus