SCOTTSDALE — Gina Jernukian was working part time when she began to notice something in her tattoo studio that made her uneasy.
“I started having strange tattoos and strange men in my studio,” she said. “I mean, I was taken aback. They were rude. They were mean. The girl didn’t speak at all — only the guy did, and he would yell at me.”
“So I finally asked someone, ‘What is this?’ And a friend of mine said, ‘It’s probably a branding.’ I said, ‘What?’ I had no idea. I had no idea. I didn’t know.”
Jernukian, a permanent makeup artist who lives in Phoenix, decided to find out more. She did some online research and attended meetings of groups that were all too familiar with branding — the practice of tattooing or marking sex trafficking victims, mostly women, with the names or symbols of those who victimize them.
Over half of sex trafficking survivors have a branding mark that affects their mental health and impedes their healing and reintegration into society.
A 2022 study that surveyed over 80 survivors in the U.S. showed they rated the need and impact of free laser-removal services at a high level for recovery.
“Many victims are branded by their traffickers with tattoos conveying ownership, including names, symbols, and barcodes,” researchers wrote. “ We believe there is a greater need at a national level to support these survivors, allowing them to reclaim their bodies.
Jernukian refused to continue being inadvertently complicit. She founded Soul Survivor Ink, a national nonprofit organization that helps survivors of human trafficking find providers near them who can cover, remove and lighten branding tattoos. The service has expanded to 39 locations in the U.S., with several locations in Arizona and Texas.
Removing the evidence of trauma is a complex and usually costly process. Jernukian and her partner artists do so for free.
Although there are organizations that help survivors, Jernukian said that branding removal is an area that is neglected.
“Some of the first things that programs will do is get them medical treatment, dental, housing, food, clothing,” Jernukian said. “They’ll sign them up for school, some counseling, meditation, but one thing they don’t offer is branding removal or cover-ups. So even though they’re starting to heal on the inside, they’re still not healed on the outside. They have to look at this every single day, and it brings them right back to where they were.”
There were more than 10,360 cases of human trafficking, involving 16,710 individuals in 2021 alone, according to the most extensive sex trafficking data sets in the U.S., the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Experts say that is likely only a fraction of the true number.
According to the Polaris Project, a nationwide organization that combats sex trafficking, nearly 75% of sex trafficking victims are women. Although data is difficult to come by, various sources estimate that up to half of victims have been branded by their traffickers.
Sometimes the women are branded with a tattoo, and sometimes, Jernukian said, “the trafficker can take a knife and carve a symbol on their head or on their body. And then, even going further than branding, sometimes they’re burned.”
Tattoos are usually black and white and common themes are money and loyalty, according to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of the Sex Trafficking Intervention Research office at Arizona State University. The markings can be prominent on the victim’s face or neck to send a message to the victim and the world.
“But sometimes it’s hidden; it’s near their body, their private parts — that is really a message to buyers or other traffickers,” she said.
Not only do traffickers use branding as a way to show ownership, said Roe-Sepowitz, but “for the victim, there’s also the psychology of ‘I belong to him.’ This is a connection that feels very real. And her trauma bond with him is deepened by the tattoo or the brand or the scarring.”
As a permanent makeup artist, Jernukian had the skills to help, so she reached out to local organizations in 2014 and said, “Hey, this is what I do. Send me anyone for free. Just send them.’”
At first, only a couple of women came to her for help. Then, she began getting calls from trafficking shelters twice a month. “And it grew and grew,” Jernukian said. “People were driving three, four hours to come see me … It started blowing up. I thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to help so many people.”
“Then I was reminded that the Lord does not call the equipped. He equips the called. And so that was it. It took off and… we founded Soul Survivor Ink.”
Every time a sex trafficking survivor looks at a forced branding, it can feel as if they are still in bondage, Jernukian said. Some survivors say that “it physically hurts, like they can feel it, and some even try to scrape it off themselves.”
But many organizations that help survivors aren’t aware of the significance of this kind of trauma, and how it impacts a survivor’s mental and emotional health, making it harder to heal.
When working with survivors, tattoo removal often feels like a bonus compared to health care, housing and safety, Roe-Sepowitz said. But once she and others started working with survivors over time, the impact these brandings have on survivors’ healing became apparent.
“I had a client who had a very significant, very dramatic white supremacy symbol on the back of her neck and it was impeding her life,” Roe-Sepowitz said.
Still, making the decision to remove the branding isn’t always a simple one, especially because so many victims are emotionally connected to their traffickers.
The Polaris Project estimates that four out of 10 victims were trafficked by a member of their own families or were recruited by an intimate partner or a marriage proposal.
“It can be years later and still a lot of them struggle with that mental abuse,” Jernukian said. “They still feel like they’re betraying this trafficker or this pimp, even though it’s been a couple of years or however long. They still feel the betrayal. And sometimes it’s extremely emotional when we’re either covering or removing it.”
“It’s not like, ‘Get this off me,’ ” Jernukian said. “It takes a lot for them to make that decision. Because they’re still under control of this pimp. They feel like they’re betraying him. For us, it’s like, ‘Girl, go get that done.’ And they’re like, ‘Not yet’.”
“Oftentimes our clients really didn’t have a huge support network and their traffickers became their families. They made them feel like they belong,” Roe-Sepowitz said.. “That tattoo reminds them that they belong. And even in spite of the abuse and trauma they’re experiencing, it’s sort of better than the alternative being alone or homeless or hungry.”
Many victims weren’t forced to get branded, Jernukian added. They were manipulated into it. “Some of the girls would say something like, ‘You have no idea what it took to earn this tattoo.’ They were proud to do it.”
But once they’ve escaped their traffickers and have begun to heal, “they look back and wonder how did I get there? How did my mentality go that far?”
Natalie Grace, a 29-year-old Houston resident, connected with Soul Survivor Ink in 2022. She wants to remove two non-consensual tattoos that have marked her face since she was 24.
Grace had been seeing a charismatic tattoo artist while dealing with a drinking problem. One day, after heavily drinking, she passed out next to him.
“I woke up with these teardrops … tattoos on my face,” Grace said, pointing at black teardrops located at the outer corner of her eyes. ”He just did that while I was passed out as a joke because he had them too in the exact same place. It was kind of like saying ‘you’re mine now.'”
She couldn’t get a job, pay for food or housing. “And that’s what led me to being homeless and couch-hopping. That’s how I ended up in the human trafficking situation.”
Her trafficker was later arrested and sentenced to prison. But the teardrops are a daily reminder of her past.
“It’s like a SKU number for a shoe,” she said. “Wherever that shoe goes, it’s gonna lead back to the manufacturer.”
“ Unless I’m actually wearing makeup and hiding the tattoos, it’s like, I can’t really be myself. I have to pretend to be someone else. And it’s horrible.”
Grace was connected with Jernukian through other survivors who had been helped by Soul Survivors Ink. Together, they are working on finding a tattoo artist who will remove the tattoo from Grace’s face. Before I connected with Soul Survivor Ink, “I never even thought that getting them removed was an option,” Grace said.
“I want them completely removed,” she said. “I’ve always been a professional and I want to be back to my old professional self. This is not me. This is not what I was meant to do.”
“It’s time to wipe my tears.”
Tattoo removal takes time and can be done through different approaches. Often, tattoos are more difficult to remove than they are to place on the skin. A tattoo’s color, size and location, the depth of the ink, the person’s skin tone and tolerance for pain all affect the process, Jernukian said.
If a Soul Survivor Ink artist can’t remove a branding, they will try to cover it with another tattoo.
Survivors get to pick what they want on their body, Jernukian said. It might be something meaningful to them, like a butterfly. And then they could look in the mirror and see this tattoo. That’s beautiful.”
“Whether it’s covered or removed, it’s like this weight is lifted,” Jernukian said. “One of the survivors told me “Is it weird if I say that I feel like a child right now? I feel childlike and giddy. It’s like going back to before this was done, you know?”
Soul Survivor has grown exponentially since Jernukian started it in Phoenix in 2016. It now serves women in 56 cities and 22 states.
“We need to be in every state.” Jernukian said. We “continue to seek affiliates. The goal is to be in every state by 2025.”
The organization helps fund more than 1,000 procedures a year, Jernukian said. Financial donations and volunteers’ time and expertise covers the costs, with no charge to victims, she said.
Artists who volunteer are reimbursed by Soul Survivor Ink for the cost of ink and needles, usually between $125 and $170 a session.
“Every day, we’re trying to find resources and enroll more people,” Jernukian said. “We just need to find people that have a heart to serve. And when we do, it’s a perfect fit.”