UNMC, tattoo artists raise awareness about human trafficking


Samantha Weideman

The University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health collaborated with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, Black Squirrel Tattoo and community partners on Thursday to present “Human Trafficking and the Tattoo Industry.”

The free meeting, which featured tattoo artists and professionals well-versed in human trafficking issues, kicked off the Heritage Tattoo Conference at the Old Mattress Factory, 501 N. 13th St.

More than 60 tattoo artists, volunteers and community members in attendance listened to Shireen Rajaram, an Associate Professor at UNMC, give an overview of human trafficking and shed light on tactics that traffickers use to maintain control over survivors.

Human trafficking is the process of recruiting, harboring, transporting and paying a person for labor or sex. Four factors come into play when determining trafficking cases: force, fraud, coercion and age– minors cannot consent.

Rajaram identified youths, recent migrants, runaways, homeless individuals, substance users, LGBTQ+ youth and welfare recipients as groups that a higher risk of being targeted for human trafficking.

Because traffickers use tattoos to signify ownership and maintain control and dominance over survivors, Rajaram said tattoo artists have an important role to play in ending sex trafficking.

“The tattoo industry is in a unique position to interact with survivors,” Rajaram said. “Artists build that close relationship with their clients, and it is a critical opportunity to reach out to them. The more they are aware, the more they can do about it.”

Deputy Chad Miller, a human trafficking investigator for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said the intersection between human trafficking and the tattoo industry is large.

“Statistically, 80-to-85 percent of sex trafficking victims are going to see a health care professional,” Miller said. “In my experience, 70-to-80 percent of our victims also have tattoos.”

Miller told attendees to look for tattoos in the form of barcodes, money-related symbols, traffickers’ street names and phrases like “property of” and “pay me.”

“For traffickers, this is about ownership and property,” Miller said. “A pimp wants a label on his girls so that other pimps know she belongs to somebody. It’s an insult to them if their girls choose to go to another pimp.”

When they visit tattoo parlors, Rajaram said survivors might feel anxious or depressed, may not be allowed to speak for themselves and likely will not know what town they live in because they have been moving frequently.

Traffickers will often handle the money, control the survivor’s identification, and answer any questions. Miller said traffickers and survivors may use terms like “wifey,” “John,” “daddy” and “trick” to refer to one another.

“If you see something that could be trafficking,” Miller said, “don’t be obvious about it so there’s a confrontation. Write down names and license plate numbers. If you have security cameras in your parlor, keep the security footage. If you’re not sure, call.”

If you see or suspect trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888. Call 911 for emergencies or if in immediate danger.