Atlanta nonprofit helps remove symbols of pain for trauma survivors

Owner of Villa Rica Ink Joey Hulsey applies a tattoo to cover up reminders of a troubled past for Reina, a former drug addict, at his shop in Villa Rica. CONTRIBUTED BY STEVE SCHAEFER

Owner of Villa Rica Ink Joey Hulsey applies a tattoo to cover up reminders of a troubled past for Reina, a former drug addict, at his shop in Villa Rica. CONTRIBUTED BY STEVE SCHAEFER

Each horrific chapter in Jessica Lamb’s life was written on her body.

There were cut marks from self-harming. Markings from her time as a trafficking victim covered other parts of her body.

She escaped that life, and the drug addiction that thrived there, but for years the tattoos and scars were constant reminders of the person she once was.

“I was very ashamed of them,” said Lamb, who later found salvation in her faith.

Today, the cuts and tattoos have been covered with images of things that have a positive influence on her life, such as her love of painting and flowers. One leg now has a tattoo of a paint palette and brushes with the words “Beauty for Ashes,” taken from Scripture (Isaiah 61:1-3). Blooming flowers are on her wrist, which symbolize “something new.”

Jessica Lamb, founder of Atlanta Redemption Ink, with Crystal Boyd, of Pür Ink in Alpharetta. Boyd has done several tattoo covers for the nonprofit. CONTRIBUTED

icon to expand image

Now when the metro Atlanta wife and mother looks at her body, she doesn’t see pain. “It represents growth,” she said. “A new life blooming from the old. I can finally look in a mirror and say, ‘I’m not her any more’. This is where my life was and this is where God has brought me.”

Two years ago, Lamb started the nonprofit Atlanta Redemption Ink, which focuses on restoring dignity to survivors of trauma and human trafficking. She also works with former gang members and people who cut themselves as a way to cope with emotional distress. She has enlisted the help of a network of more than two dozen tattoo artists and removal specialists in Georgia to remove visible signs of pain or turn them into beautiful works of art. The nonprofit has also worked in Alabama, California, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

So far, Lamb’s group has helped more than 160 people.

“We take a mark of pain and turn it into a depiction of hope, recovery and freedom,” she said. “Getting rid of a tattoo from a trafficker is like breaking that final bond. You can finally exhale completely.”

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution is not giving the full names of survivors who have participated in the program because they have been victims of sexual violence or trafficking. Some are former gang members whose lives could be in danger if they were identified.

Many people get tattoos for more joyous occasions. They might put the names or images of their children or a lover. Perhaps they have a beloved hobby or favorite saying, a religious symbol or flag.

In some cases, though tattoos can represent a dark period in someone’s life.

Lamb said one ex-gang member had a tattoo across his lips that read “never snitch.”

One woman’s pimp branded her with money bags on her upper thighs and dollar signs running up to her pelvic area. With others, their trafficker’s names are tattooed on their bodies with the words, “for life” or “property of.” Drugs and self-cutting or burning can also leave their scars.

Lamb recently met one woman, Reina, at Villa Rica Ink.

Dressed in a gray and black top and black leggings, Reina, who works in retail, clutched her cellphone which contained an image for a tattoo she helped designed to cover the needle tracks from nearly seven years of heroin abuse.

Villa Rica Ink’s Joey Hulsey works to cover the signs of the painful past of a reformed drug addict at his shop. CONTRIBUTED BY STEVE SCHAEFER

icon to expand image

She said the tattoo, an hourglass with smoke emanating from it, represents “God’s timing. My life is in God’s timing.”

Before getting the tattoo, Reina said she would feel embarrassed. “I knew people were looking at it and talking about it. Because I’m a light-skinned person, it was very noticeable.”

The tattoo session last nearly three hours. Once Reina saw her tattoo, it was like “a chain was breaking.”

“Now I have something positive for people to ask about,” said Reina, who plans to write a book about her life. “When they ask what does that mean, I can explain my testimony.”

State leaders said the Super Bowl gives them a chance to raise awareness.

To participate in the program, tattoo artists and removal specialists learn about trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and increase their awareness of human trafficking and mental health.

Jesse Rollins, owner of Iron Clad Ink in Covington, has probably done about a dozen covers since he started participating in the program.

“I just try to help people get to a better place in life,” he said. “They haven’t been given the same chances we have. I want them to be able to have the same opportunities we have without being judged for the tattoos they carry.”

He has worked with trafficking survivors and men who have been forced to join gangs to survive in prison.

It’s not just the survivors who are affected.

“I’ve been in business long enough to see how certain tattoos can have a negative connotation and can really hinder someone’s future,” said Joe Carroll of Dr. Ink Eraser in Atlanta. He’s worked with military and police recruits who want to remove tattoos, but working with some of people in the Redemption Ink program has been eye-opening.

Sometimes they share their stories, but he’s careful not to probe. He can tell when a tattoo has been forcibly done.

“They’re not all good stories and some are very personal,” he said. “For these people it’s a chance to have a future. It can be life changing.”