In Her Own Skin: Surviving human trafficking

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Katie sits anxiously in the tattoo chair, staring at the large black script stretching across her right hand and wrist. She fidgets for a moment and rests her arm on the stool. On the table next to her lies a collection of vibrant ink cups. Katie's only request to the artist is that he make her new tattoo vivid and bright. His machine starts to hum while Katie watches the memory of her dark past dissipate under a bouquet of colorful roses.

The flowers disguise the name of the man who trafficked Katie for sex for almost four years. She is 22.

"My daughter is starting to ask me what my tattoos mean," Katie said. "I would never be able to explain what that tattoo meant and how I got it," She pauses. "It just covers up a whole package of my life that I don't have to explain."

Katie started using drugs following the death of her mother, which put her on the streets at age 18.

"I was in it pretty deep," Katie said. "When you are on the streets, a lot of guys are your family and your supplier. They're kinda your pimp, and they get territorial because you're theirs."

Branding women is a technique that traffickers use to control their victims, said Michelle Hannan, coordinator of community services for the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition, a network of organizations fighting human trafficking.

"[Branding] is a way of identifying that those under their control are essentially their property," said Hannan. "If the victim in the course of being trafficked encountered another trafficker, then they would be able to identify the street name of the controllers."

Katie's trafficker forced her to get his name branded across her right hand and wrist in front of an "entourage of dope boys" to show that she was his property, because in their world, that's what these women are. They work the streets for days, deprived of sleep and food. They are belittled, abused and sexually extorted.

Katie unzips her pink sweater and reveals another brand. Stretched across her entire chest are the words "loyalty is royalty," tattooed in black script. This was a logo for a particular gang she ran with, a logo she shared with many women. One of those women is Jennifer Kempton, sex trafficking survivor and founder of Survivor's Ink, the organization paying to cover up Katie's branding tattoos.

"I just really wanted to help a couple girls. You know, some of the girls I knew of," Kempton said. "I just thought of it like a local issue. As I sit here now, less than two years later, we have applications all over the world and we've already started doing out-of-state debranding."

A constant reminder

"[The tattoo artist] was doing my neck and I started having flashbacks," Kempton said about her first cover-up. "It was like I was back in the dope house and I was watching all these other girls get branded along with me, and that's when I felt like I figured out what my purpose was."

As of early December, about 30 women in Central Ohio, and a growing number out of state, have benefited from Kempton's idea.

Hannan praised Survivor's Ink's approach toward covering up, rather than removing, branding tattoos.

"In the past we have looked for funding to do tattoo removals and it was a struggle," Hannan said. "I think that option of redesign and creating a new meaning is an amazing option."

Branding removals are expensive, painful and time-consuming. Although these factors can also play into the cover-up process, tattoo cover-ups are typically more affordable and less painful. A cover-up can also have a more emotional meaning for the individual.

Although Kempton physically escaped a life of sexual abuse and drug addiction, her brandings were a constant mental reminder of her past. She called it "psychological enslavement."

"Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw I had one on my arm, one on my neck, one on my lower back and one above my genitalia," Kempton said. "I was constantly reminded of the violence I had suffered and the misery I was trying to, you know, just completely forget, and I couldn't."

At Tim Hortons, Kempton orders an iced tea before settling in to a table for an interview. She begins to describe how she was coerced into the sex trafficking industry. There are moments where she has to pause to hold back her tears. During the interview, she takes a call. On the other end is a concerned mother seeking treatment and help for her minor daughter, who is trying to recover from her experiences being trafficked for sex. Kempton gently rocks her toddler with one hand while holding her phone in the other, reciting from memory organizations that could assist the young survivor's needs.

"A lot of these organizations can provide services, but they do not know what it is like first-hand being raped with a butcher knife," Kempton said.

On April 19, 2013, Kempton was held by one of her "tricks" in an abandoned house where she was repeatedly raped and sodomized with a knife for two hours. Kempton escaped and returned to her "loyal people," the ones who were selling her on the street. They handed her three paper towels, told her to clean herself up and get back out. Kempton, feeling defeated and hopeless, went to the basement and attempted to hang herself.

"I felt the warmth of death overcoming me, and I felt all the addiction and misery leaving my body out of my feet," Kempton said, her eyes filling with tears. "About the time it moved to my knees, I had hit the floor, and I was really angry." The rope had broken.

"I heard this voice come out of nowhere and it said, 'I have purpose for you and it's not to die in the basement of a crack house.'"

For many survivors, brandings are scars that mark moments of a haunting past. Kempton describes the cover-up process as taking something ugly and turning it into beautiful art. She talks about how having the choice of what goes on their body gives these women a sense of agency once again.

"It's a constant reminder of this life of control and having all of their choices taken away from them," Hannan said. "All of that trauma and guilt and shame, I think that the branding can be a marker for that, just a physical reminder."

Many of the cover-ups survivors choose are beautiful designs and words of inspiration, turning a dark moment into beautiful art.

For Kempton's first cover-up, she chose an intricate cross with the words "Love" and the biblical citation "1 Cor 13:4-13." The "Love is patient, love is kind" verse is one that Kempton holds close to her heart. She said love was something she looked for her entire life and found in God. Now Kempton is helping other women reclaim their love for themselves by providing scholarships to remove these marks of oppression from their bodies.

Kempton felt inspired after her revelation in the basement and began a journey toward a new life, but her brandings were a constant reminder of her past. One particular reminder was a branding low on her abdomen that read "Property of Salem." Her human trafficking advocate was disgusted by what she saw, so she reached out to a family member who funded Kempton to get her branding covered up. After feeling the freedom of having the tattoos covered up, Kempton decided she wanted to "pay it forward."

'It's not a job for everybody.'

Survivor's Ink gave its first tattoo scholarship in February 2014, about 10 months after Kempton's night in the crack house basement.

Each scholarship, for around $125, includes the tattoo removal, lunch or dinner and a ride to and from the tattoo shop. Tattoo scholarships are funded solely by donations.

To be eligible for a Survivor's Ink debranding scholarship, a survivor must have at least six months of a recovery process, addiction treatment or safety program behind her. After a survivor fills out an application on the Survivor's Ink website, Kempton reviews the application and pairs the survivor with a tattoo artist who will be a good fit.

"This is a very trauma-filled subject, and it's a very emotional process," Kempton said. "We wanted someone who has the right demeanor and somebody who is capable of doing this kind of work. It's not a job for everybody."

For survivors in and near Columbus, the perfect fit is Evolved tattoo artist Mike Prickett.

"I went in and I grilled him," Kempton said with a laugh. "I remember it was so funny, he sat back with his arms above his head and he was like, 'Well, you are demanding, but I'll do it.' He was working as a social worker, so his demeanor was perfect."

Prickett is a quiet man with a friendly disposition. His presence is calm and secure. He considers tattooing to be his way of giving back to the community.

"I have the capability to help these women get these things off their bodies, so I'm just doing it," Prickett said. "I mean, that's what you want to do, you want to help people. Grab that opportunity to do it."

After seeing the positive impact that the tattoo scholarships had on survivors, Kempton decided to expand her organization to include more services for women and to educate the public about human trafficking. In April 2015, Survivor's Ink began outreach to help place survivors in treatment facilities and started prevention education at Ohio State University, Columbus State Community College and in Hilliard schools. Kempton's talking about expanding even more in the next year.

Katie and Kempton reminisce about their past while Prickett works on the finishing touches of the elaborate piece. Nearly three hours have passed, and Katie is emotionally and physically exhausted. She looks down at her new tattoo, smiles and grabs Kempton's hand. The detail is impeccable. The twisting and turning of fine lines and vibrant colors mask the name of the man who once trafficked Katie. Now all that remains is a beautiful piece of art. Katie turns to Prickett and Kempton and expresses her overwhelming gratitude.

"To the people who are not on the streets, don't judge the ones who are," Katie said. "Some of them are out there against their own will, and some of them have no other choice, no other life. To the girls who are on the streets, there are people trying to help. There is hope."

Survivor's Ink

To learn more about Survivor's Ink, visit There, you can read more about what the organization does to help victims of human trafficking and you can make a donation to fund scholarships for tattoo removal.