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The Scars Of Exploitation – Understanding Branding Tattoos In Sex Trafficking

Heidi Chance, a 25-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, dedicated her career to combatting sex trafficking, notably serving 13 years in the H.E.A.T (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Unit.

Executive Contributor Heidi Chance

In the world of sex trafficking, victims often bear physical and emotional scars that serve as painful reminders of their exploitation. Among these scars are branding tattoos, a cruel form of control used by traffickers to assert ownership and exert power over their victims. 


Woman getting tattooed

Modern-day slavery

“Modern Day Slavery” is a phrase that is often associated with sex trafficking and it is not a catchy phrase that is an empty use of words used to describe this issue, this is real ownership of another person in action. The branding tattoos are the outward display of that ownership for all to see. 


In this article, we will explore the sinister practice of branding tattoos in sex trafficking, examine their psychological impact on victims, and discuss the critical role of tattoo removal and cover-up services in the healing process.


Understanding branding tattoos

Branding tattoos are sometimes tattoos forcibly applied to trafficking victims by their traffickers as a means of marking them as property and instilling fear and control. These tattoos may include the trafficker's name, initials, or symbols associated with their criminal organization. In some cases, victims are tattooed with derogatory or dehumanizing phrases to further strip them of their identity and autonomy. Branding tattoos are a form of psychological manipulation designed to erase the victim's sense of self-worth and agency, leaving them feeling trapped and powerless.


As an investigator of Human Trafficking for many years, I have seen countless victims with the words “Property of” and then the traffickers name tattooed on them. I have also seen as many as 5 or 6 victims all with the same branding tattoos from the same trafficker. 


Now as a normal citizen if you were to be standing in line at the gas station and would observe several people with the same tattoos, I would hope that you would recognize this as a main indicator of sex trafficking and you could notify law enforcement. I have a resource where I have listed out many of the most common indicators of sex trafficking all in one place that is available here. There you can download this indicators list and see other resources available so that you may get a better understanding about what sex trafficking is and what it looks like occurring domestically in the United States on a daily basis. It is also very important to know where and how to report suspected trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is a resource that is available 24/7 and can take calls or texts in several languages. The number is 888-373-7888 or text the word “info” to 233733. There is sometimes a delay, however, when you report solely to the hotline. If it is a crime happening “right now” that should be a call to 911. That is what the emergency number is for, and if you want to only provide your phone number instead of waiting for police, you can do that also. 


Psychological impact on victims

For victims of sex trafficking, branding tattoos serve as constant reminders of their trauma and exploitation, evoking feelings of shame, fear, and helplessness. These tattoos not only physically mar their bodies but also symbolize the deep emotional and psychological scars inflicted by their traffickers. Victims may experience profound feelings of alienation and disconnection from their own bodies, as well as a sense of ongoing vulnerability and insecurity. The presence of branding tattoos can exacerbate feelings of stigma and self-blame, making it difficult for victims to seek help or disclose their experiences to others.

The placement of these branding tattoos are also done with meaning. Some traffickers want to place the brand out in the open for anyone to see. Tattoos on the breasts of females, their neck and even their face are common for traffickers who choose to place these brands where they can be seen by all. This is done with two purposes.

  1. To advertise to other traffickers that this victim belongs to them, so that they won’t try to steal them away.

  2. To make victims feel a part of their family or group.


In some instances, some victims are made to believe that the branding tattoo is a show of them being a part of the “team” or “family.” Some victims initially want to get these tattoos so that they can feel a sense of belonging. Only after they realize the entirety of their exploitation do they realize the true purposes of the brands. 


Source of shame

For many trafficking victims, branding tattoos are a source of profound shame and humiliation. They serve as visible evidence of their victimization, making it difficult for them to conceal their past or integrate back into society. Victims may fear judgment or rejection from others, as well as retaliation from their traffickers if the tattoos are discovered. The stigma associated with branding tattoos can further isolate victims and prevent them from accessing the support and resources they need to heal and rebuild their lives.


Role of tattoo removal and cover-up services

Tattoo removal and cover-up services play a crucial role in the healing process for trafficking survivors. These services offer victims the opportunity to reclaim ownership of their bodies and reclaim control over their lives. By removing or covering up branding tattoos, survivors can begin to shed the physical and emotional reminders of their exploitation and take steps towards reclaiming their sense of identity and self-worth. Additionally, tattoo removal and cover-up services provide survivors with a tangible form of support and validation, signaling to them that they are deserving of care and compassion.


It is important for law enforcement and victim services to seek out information about tattoo removal or cover up services and have this information be a part of a victims recovery. There are many organizations across the United States that offer these services and it is important to support these non-profit organizations financially so that they can continue to assist these victims with this critical part of their recovery. 


Healing and recovery

The process of removing or covering up branding tattoos is an important step in the healing and recovery journey for trafficking survivors. It can empower victims to reclaim control over their bodies and rewrite the narrative of their trauma. However, it is essential to recognize that tattoo removal and cover-up services are just one aspect of a comprehensive support system for survivors. Healing from sex trafficking requires a holistic approach that addresses the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of survivors, as well as the systemic factors that contribute to their vulnerability to exploitation.


In conclusion, branding tattoos are a cruel and insidious form of control used by sex traffickers to assert power and dominance over their victims. These tattoos serve as constant reminders of trauma and exploitation, evoking feelings of shame, fear, and helplessness. Tattoo removal and cover-up services play a critical role in the healing process for trafficking survivors, offering them the opportunity to reclaim ownership of their bodies and take steps towards rebuilding their lives. It is imperative that we continue to raise awareness about the prevalence of branding tattoos in sex trafficking and support survivors in their journey towards healing and recovery.


If you are interested in prevention education and training visit the website and be sure to get a copy of my new book “Talk To Them” Navigating Difficult Conversations With Youth In The Digital Age. This unique guide offers parents, guardians, and caregivers an actionable plan for having difficult conversations with the children in their care.


Heidi Chance, a 25-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, dedicated her career to combatting sex trafficking, notably serving 13 years in the H.E.A.T (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) Unit. As an expert in forensic child interviews, abuse identification, online child protection, and undercover operations, she's a sought-after speaker, addressing law enforcement and many conferences. Heidi is featured in the PBS documentary "Sex Trafficking in America" and now uses her platform at to raise public awareness and provide training and consulting services to law enforcement, contributing to the fight against sex trafficking.



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