BRYAN, Texas — Audrey Tate, an artist with Arsenal tattoo studio in downtown Bryan, has been honing her craft since the early 2000s.
In 2019, she was given a unique opportunity after attending a seminar on tattoo shop intervention for human trafficking. Now, she creates cover-up art for trafficking survivors.
“Color seems to work better to disguise an older tattoo," Tate said. "So far everyone’s been very clear about the ideas that they want, which is good. Because it’s a good sign that they’re thinking about what’s next – 'I want butterflies, roses!'”
Tate partners with local nonprofit Unbound, who refer some of their clients to her for cover-up work. This week she'll be finishing a design on her fourth client from Unbound.
“Our program where our clients get tattoo cover-ups, as well as other services, is called the dignity program," explained Katie Humphreys, director of operations for Unbound B/CS. "It’s one of our many programs that’s here to support our survivors in their process of recovery.”
Trafficking survivors will sometimes be forcibly tattoo-branded by their abusers, who select symbols such as bar codes, dollar signs, or money bags – or, the abuser’s name. Through working with unbound, not only has Tate been able to cover up these marks for clients, but she’s also learned to spot the signs of human trafficking from potential customers.
“Learning the information from Unbound, I realized that years and years ago, I would be witnessing these situations and I didn’t even realize," Tate said. "... Turns out I’ve done some of those [tattoos] without knowing that I was participating in that cycle.”
Now, as she offers cover-up services to Unbound clients for free, not only is Tate making these survivors feel more beautiful and autonomous, but she’s changing, too.
“It’s almost like a redemption for myself, to be like – now I’m doing good, not harm," Tate noted.
Artists like Tate are taught by Unbound to intervene covertly if they suspect a customer is being forcibly branded. Unbound advises artists, as well as anyone who spots suspicious behavior, to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Unbound’s Dignity Program doesn’t just employ tattoo artists. They work with hairdressers, dentists, nail salons, clothing stores, and more. For anyone who would like to offer their business services to survivors through Unbound, the organization is currently accepting new program partners, especially eye doctors and gynecologists.
More information is available at unboundbcs.org.