As we advocate in our guides to Intimate Partner Violence, one of the most crucial things to remember about domestic violence and child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is that control is a huge factor, and often the perpetrators of abuse will go to great lengths to maintain control over their victims. One lesser known way that some perpetrators do this is by “branding” their victims, or forcing them to get tattoos or body modifications, usually of the perpetrator’s name, that are meant to symbolize their “ownership” of the victim.
This form of abuse is rare but particularly traumatic, as body modification is a very personal choice and having it imposed on your body against your will can feel like an extreme personal violation. Also, because of the permanent nature of body modification, it can be particularly distressing that the evidence of the assault remains after separation from the abuser.
Some abusers may also attempt to control their partner’s bodies by forbidding them from having body art. Tattoos and body modifications must be a personal decision, and it is never acceptable to assert control over someone else’s body. Some also attempt to assert “ownership” of the victim by tattooing the name of the victim on their own bodies, which can cause the victim to experience feelings of guilt or obligation to stay with the perpetrator.
Visible cases like this have been happening on a larger scale in the past few years. One case involving a teenage prostitute made headlines, when her pimp forced her to tattoo his name across her eyelids at only fourteen years old. There have also been recorded cases of abusive parents forcing their children to be tattooed against their will.
While there may be relatively few recorded cases of forced tattooing, it is a big enough problem that people are taking action. Dawn Maestas is a tattoo removal specialist from Albuquerque who dedicates herself to doing free tattoo removals for victims of this kind of violence.
“I’ve had victims who have been drugged and tattooed, who have been physically held down and forced tattooed, and I get angry,” says Maestas. “I get angry because I know what these tattoos mean.”
When the physical evidence of abuse or violation remains after the abuse is finished, the trauma is heightened, forcing recovering survivors to be reminded of their abuse time and time again. Having these tattoos removed could allow many victims the freedom they need to start recovering from trauma.