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UNMC asking tattoo artists to spot human trafficking

Posted: 7:00 PM, May 21, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-22 12:49:20Z

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Human trafficking and tattoos -- researchers at Nebraska Medical Center say artists can play a part in fighting this problem.

Experts want to get the word out so every artist knows what to look for.

"We do life-changing tattoos every day," Mel Judkins of Black Squirrel Tattoo said.

But some life changing tattoos are getting past artists. Judkin's tattoo shop was approached by researchers at UNMC examining human trafficking. Experts say artists have a critical opportunity to detect trafficking victims forced to be branded for soliciting purposes.

Judkins has been in the business for about 20 years and says this is all eye-opening.

"You look back on your career and realize you may have come in contact with human trafficking victims before and had no idea," Judkins said. "I didn't know the signs, so I'm really looking forward to this education."

Common markings include bar codes, according to authorities. Local investigators also say dollar signs, names, and slang words like "wifey" and expletives are popular. Markings can be in obvious places like arms and legs, but others could be hidden inside the lips.

UNMCs Dr. Shireen Rajaram is the one spearheaded this connection between two different industries. She's done extensive research into sex trafficking.

"One of the things that came up is the tattoos," she said. "It's hurtful for the women to be branded that way. Even after they get out of the trafficking, they feel the constant reminder of the past."

Dr. Rajaram wants to spread awareness to artists like Judkins who will be at an upcoming tattoo convention in Council Bluffs. She also encourages artists to pick up on cover-up tattoos that could be homemade, which are another sign of victims.

Dr. Rajaram and industry leading tattoo experts will discuss the partnership with the public at the Old Mattress Factory Thursday, May 23. Admission is free and the event runs 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Council Bluffs Tattoo Arts Convention takes place May 24-26 at the Mid-America Center.