You Belong to Me

The Branding of Young
Girls By Sex Traffickers

For millennia, the art of tattoo has served to ritualistic beautify the body, make statements about deeply personal or communally shared beliefs, and as a powerful element of mystical identification.
As purely an art form, the practice of covering the body with tattoos is also a way of wearing a particularly transcendental vision, which can transform the skin into a malleable canvas of abstract or realistic depictions of deities, realities and narratives.
They can be illustrations telling fantastic stories about that person’s inner life, his or her ancestors, places they belong to or aim to reach at the end of their journeys.
But along the years, the practice also became an unmistakable sign of ownership, a synonymous of proprietary rights over that individual, a warning that such body belongs to someone else. Just like animals being branded with the logo of their masters.
Today, tattooing and branding are virtually indistinguishable. Secret societies, religious sects, gangs and, yes, organized crime, all adopted branding as a fundamental part of their sometimes brutal initiation rites.
In big cities, tattoo parlors seem to be proliferating, perhaps out of our desperate need to differentiate ourselves from the growing crowd surrounding us. Or simply because one can really find incredibly talented artists, who choose to make a living pursuing this ancient, complex (and painful to the receiver) craft.
For the criminally minded, though, the trend has its shortcomings. Specially when it helps the police. It turns out that tattoos can be as effective as a fingerprint when it comes to forensics. Even when all it takes is the good, old-fashioned powers of observation.
When the LAPD caught a gang member for a crime committed years ago, for example, it was a strike of pure luck. John Juarez had been gunned down in a liquor store stick up during Christmas time in 2004 and the case would have most likely gone cold hadn’t been for a tatoo.
It turned out that the scene of the shooting was drawn in exquisite detail on the chest of Anthony Garcia, who had posed briefly for a mug shot in an unrelated case a few months after the robbery. Garcia walked away then but his freedom didn’t last long. A member of the Rivera-13 gang, he was brought over for questioning and wound up confessing his role in the crime.
Garcia’s tattoo shows a man being hit by bullets and falling back toward the liquor store. The man has the body of a peanut, which in gang slang, is a word used to describe a rival gang member. The evidence was enough to convict him and the case was closed to the relief of Juarez’s family.
For many young immigrant girls and sex workers, though, there’s no such luck. The recent case of a 15-year-old Brooklyn girl is an exception. When she was rescued by the police, in a prostitution sting, she told them that her two tattoos, the words “Daddy’s Girl,” and a picture of a bag filled with money, with “Dinero” (money, in Spanish) written underneath it, had being paid for by her pimp.
It was branding, says Kinyofu Mteremeshi-Mlimwengu, from the Brooklyn Crime Examiner, who spoke with the reporter covering the case Lisa Evers. The message is clear to other pimps: stay clear from her. More cases came to light in recent months, with girls as young as 12 being rescued from high-priced hotels in Manhattan, selling their bodies for their pimps, who arrange for their “services” and keep all their money.
Of course, the point here is not about prostitution, the so-called oldest profession in the world, and the dubious merit of considering it a crime. There are many countries that are finally putting public health and the well-being of these impoverished women ahead of any moralist consideration, and are slowly regulating the activity.
As no current U.S. politician has shown any spine in bringing the issue up for discussion, they’re pretty much left to their own street smarts, almost never good enough to get the upper hand on highly organized, powerful, international sex traffickers and crime cartels, who prey upon their vulnerability.
Back to this post, the point here is to call attention to the use of tattoo as branding, and the bad hand sex workers are being dealt to by our oh, so pious society.
That’s why organizations such as the National Tattoo Association are taking steps to train its professionals to recognize the signs when a tattoo is being forced upon someone against their will. And change.org is collecting signatures for a petition that would also help to enact laws to get rid of the yet another way women are being abused and exploited by big bad guys, no offense to male prostitutes that may also be victims.

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