Tattoo Artists Invited to Join the Fight Against Sex Trafficking

OMAHA – Sometimes, help comes from the most unlikely of sources. As public health departments and law enforcement battle the modern-day enslavement of sex trafficking, they say tattoo artists could play a life-changing role in the fight.

In a novel approach to combat the sex trade, the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health is teaming up with community partners, Black Squirrel Tattoo and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, to present “Human Trafficking and the Tattoo Industry,” a meeting for tattoo professionals in the area to help them recognize the signs that a client may be trapped in a trafficker’s web.

This free meeting – open to the public – is slated for Thursday, May 23, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Old Mattress Factory, 501 N. 13th St., in Omaha, and includes lunch. You can register for the free meeting here.

Women who are sex trafficked within the U.S., are often made to get tattoos in the form of a bar code, dollar sign or the trafficker’s name. This is how some traffickers maintain control and dominance over women and girls.

“We have a unique relationship with our clients. We spend a lot of time, one-on-one with them, so we’d be most effective if trained,” said Mel Judkins, owner of Black Squirrel Tattoo. “Many tattoo artists don’t realize there is a connection (between tattoos and human sex trafficking), but once I explain it, they want more education on the topic. I’m hoping that once we get the ball rolling, we could teach at other tattoo conventions around the country.”

The meeting will feature world-renowned tattoo artist Gunnar, who will talk about the tattoo industry on the eve of a national tattoo convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Gunner is known around the world for his artistic style in tattoos, illustration and fine art.  His tattoos are worn by models and musicians, and he is best known for his use of color and illustrative style. Josh Payne, a winner of television’s “Ink Master” competition on Spike TV, also will speak.

Shireen Rajaram, Ph.D., associate professor, health promotion, UNMC College of Public Health, received a community engagement planning award from the Great Plains IDeA-CTR Community-Academic Partnership Program, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, to organize this meeting.

“Tattoo artists have a critical opportunity for detection, identification and reporting of any abuse, including sex trafficking,” Dr. Shireen Rajaram, UNMC College of Public Health professor, said. “Through secondary prevention and the timely identification of survivors, they can help stem the violence and injury. They can connect survivors to support services in the community, so they can start to heal from the emotional and physical trauma and rebuild their lives.”

At the May 23 meeting, Dr. Rajaram will present her research on survivors, and Chad Miller, deputy sheriff/ investigator into human trafficking, will discuss the business of human trafficking. A facilitated discussion will follow.

The meeting will be followed by a paid admission event, featuring tattoo artists. There also will be a happy-hour fundraiser to support the Women’s Center for Advancement in Omaha and a separate organization that helps survivors of human trafficking remove or transform their trafficker’s tattoos.