“Scarred by the sex trade:” Tattoo artist helping victims break free from their “brands” and their pimps

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The underworld of sex trafficking leaves many scars on its victims. Some seen, some unseen. Tattoos or "brands" are a constant reminder of their past for those who escape sex trafficking.

Kate Malone, an artist with "Atomic Tattoos" on East North Avenue has seen these brands.

"I saw two girls who had the same name -- that came in together and I asked about it and they said 'oh, that's our pimp,'" Malone said.

Denise Harris, now 50 years old was forced into sex trafficking at age 14. Her pimp, in his 30s, lured in the runaway with the promise of a place to sleep and safety, and then forced her into sex trafficking and got her hooked on drugs. He crudely tattooed her arm with the name he gave her, Hot Fudge.

"Didn't nobody ever say 'well, where she at? Let's put out a missing report.' Wasn't any of that, you know, so I figure they aren't looking for me. I'm going to stay out here. That's when I met him. I knew what type of person he was, but I just didn't know. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to go somewhere and sleep. I wanted to be safe. You know, you try to overcome what you've been through. You're trying to overcome that, but if you're constantly looking at that name, that name's going to remind you," Harris said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karine Moreno-Taxman has prosecuted many sex trafficking cases -- and has seen many brands on survivors.

"Wanting to make changes is what people want to do and yet they can't get rid of it. It's literally like in the old west movies where you would mark your cows. One of the interesting things is that pimps will call the women and children that work for them their stable. That is the term. How many girls are in your 'stable?'" Assistant U.S. Attorney Karine Moreno-Taxman said.

Malone says as she hears more about sex trafficking, she wants to help. She offers victims of sex trafficking free tattoo cover-ups, and she's getting other tattoo artists to join the effort.

"I saw two girls who had the same name. that came in together and I asked about it and they said 'oh, that's our pimp'", says Malone.

"A cover-up is a great option. You can take something painful and turn it into something beautiful. I love doing cover-ups for people. You know, maybe it's someone who hasn't worn a tank top in years because they have a tattoo they just don't want anyone to see. Something as simple as that. They leave and say 'I feel like a new person,'" Malone said.

Malone says they cover a lot of names with roses.

"But things like reapers, eagles, birds -- things where I can manipulate the form of the wing, you know, to cover certain lettering. I can put a lot of dark shading in and it will still be a good, strong tattoo," Malone said.

For some survivors this would be perfect. For others, like Denise Harris, laser removal is what they want -- although it is expensive, it takes time and some remnants may remain.

As for Denise, she escaped the sex trade, got her GED and is working on her Associate's Degree. Her work with Convergence Resource Center allows her to help other sex trafficking survivors and conduct talks to spread awareness about the illicit trade. She likes her life now, but that does not change how she feels about the tattoo on her arm.

"Getting rid of a tattoo is like breaking that bond. That person is no longer chained to her pimp. He no longer has his mark on her. What an amazing thing to get rid of that mark," Moreno-Taxman said.

"I want it off. I do. I want it off," Harris said.

For now, Harris is focusing on just moving forward. She works at the Convergence Resource Center -- an organization that helps sex trafficking survivors and spreads awareness about sex trafficking. She's received her GED, and she's working on her associates degree.

"And this Denise I`m learning today -- I love her. I love her," Harris said.

If you are a sex trafficking survivor and would like to get your tattoo or brand covered up, you can contact Atomic Tattoos' Kate Malone at 414-289-7777. If you are someone who does laser removal and would like to help the survivors, email Beverly Taylor at beverly.taylor@fox6now.com.