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Tattoo Artists Are On The Front Lines In The Fight Against Human Trafficking


Human sex trafficking is still mostly hidden and misunderstood. And in the fight against it, law enforcement is recruiting some unexpected allies. As Becca Costello of NET News in Nebraska reports, they're asking tattoo artists to pay closer attention to their customers.

BECCA COSTELLO, BYLINE: It's estimated that a quarter-million people are sold for sex in the U.S. every year. And law enforcement officials say trafficking can be hard to spot because it rarely looks like the movies with a victim kidnapped in a dark alley. But more often than not, victims have recognizable signs. Often, a trafficker will force them to get a tattoo as a way to assert their dominance.

SAKURA YODOGAWA-CAMPBELL: It might be someplace visible, usually, you know, with a name on the neck, the hand, someplace that it's going to show you belong to me, making it harder, again, to leave that situation.

COSTELLO: That's Sakura Yodogawa-Campbell, a victim advocate in eastern Nebraska. Her work started with advocating for herself when she escaped from a man who trafficked her for sex for several years. She says many victims refer to their trafficker as their boyfriend, and it's incredibly rare for someone to say, please help me. I'm being trafficked.

Shireen Rajaram is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and trying to educate people likely to come into contact with victims. She recently organized a workshop in Omaha with nearly a hundred tattoo artists. She talked about red flags for them to watch out for.

SHIREEN RAJARAM: They don't even have identification. They don't even know where they are. And they have a very scripted conversation in there. They don't make eye contact. They have a very glazed look, maybe, in there.

COSTELLO: Jesse Neese has been tattooing in Omaha for more than 20 years and says he's seen those red flags himself.

JESSE NEESE: We get to form a relationship with the people that we tattoo. So even during that brief period, we can talk to them a bit and at least kind of get a gauge of, you know, whether their world is OK or not.

COSTELLO: While some traffickers won't seek out professional artists for these branding tattoos, victims might come in to get a cover-up or a tattoo of something else. Detective Chad Miller investigates human trafficking in Nebraska for the FBI. He says tattoo shops are often a valuable resource in his investigations.

CHAD MILLER: If you think that something's going on, if you've got security cameras in your parlor, keep all the footage for me of the people involved. If you can discreetly get license plate numbers without putting yourself at risk, get me license plate numbers, descriptions.

COSTELLO: He says an interaction is also a rare chance to let them know that help is available. Yodogawa-Campbell wonders what might've happened if someone spoke up while she was being trafficked, like during a couple of trips to the emergency room.

YODOGAWA-CAMPBELL: Nobody asked me, are you being abused? Does a person do this? That didn't happen. And I think those are two really big missed opportunities where maybe I would've been more open.

COSTELLO: Yodogawa-Campbell doesn't have a trafficking tattoo herself, but she has used tattoos to hide some of her scars. She says a person's tattoos often tell their story. And she wants tattoo artists, in particular, to be on the lookout for a story that doesn't seem quite right.

For NPR News, I'm Becca Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF EIK OCTOBRE'S "RAPID EYE MOVEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Becca Costello