Why you should care
Because trafficking is likely happening in your town too.
The soft, steady buzz of tattoo needles echoes in the distance. A pregnant Ally Burke leans against the wall in the hallway and slowly slides herself down to sit. She sighs deeply and closes her eyes — she just needs a minute.
Was it all worth it? Did the event actually work to raise awareness? Why did I wear these shoes? she asks herself.
Burke tries to quiet her mind, but it’s like a pinball machine with an unlimited supply of free turns.
“Hey, are you Ally Burke?”
Burke opens her eyes and sees a 20-something woman standing above her. She has thick glasses, faded blue hair and bright, hopeful eyes. Burke thanks her for coming and gets a hug in return.
She tells Burke she was once a victim of sex trafficking and then flips over her hand to show off the new tattoo on her forearm that Burke’s husband, Morgan, had just given her. It’s an arrow with the word ‘warrior’ written underneath.
“Getting this tattoo today was like therapy … it’s healing,” the woman says. “This tattoo will always remind me that I’m a survivor. I’m a warrior with so much more to give.”
If you know what to look for, it just might save a life.
This was Ally and her husband Morgan Burke’s first event, called Tattoos for Triumph, to raise money and awareness to fight human sex trafficking, held back in January 2018. It’s not what you’d typically see in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a town of about 26,000. But Ally, 32, has never really been one for typical.
“I’ve always been in love with tattoos,” Ally says. “It’s a great way to express yourself — like poetry on a body.” Plus, she adds, she met her husband when he gave her a tattoo.
Always the organizer among her friends, Ally and Morgan have worked on tattoo benefit events before, but this was different. They didn’t just give about 350 discounted tattoos, with proceeds going to a local women’s shelter and other organizations for trafficking victims. They also brought in speakers from the Department of Justice and human trafficking victims who shared their stories with a crowd of more than 500.
The statistics are difficult to assemble, but the most recent Global Slavery Index estimated that on any given day in 2016, 403,000 people in the U.S. lived under some form of modern slavery. Globally, about 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and half are children. It happens in every single state and cities both big and small.
Burke was shocked when she first heard the scale of the problem from a friend, Nicole Galarno, who works for child protective services. She especially wanted the tattoo community to know because of one gruesome tradition: traffickers will take their victims to tattoo shops to “brand” them.
Morgan was oblivious to the practice just a couple years ago when a man showed up at his tattoo parlor with a young woman. She didn’t make eye contact and wouldn’t speak — not even to make small talk or share about the tattoo he was giving her. Instead, the man did all the talking and stayed close by to watch the entire time.
“I now know what that was,” Morgan says. “We need to get the word out across our community and unite to make it nearly impossible for traffickers to keep this practice going.”
As soon as the Burkes learned about this practice of branding, they spread the word in the tattoo community. They even started their own group called Shielding Survivors to give free cover-ups and tattoos to victims who have been branded — and connect them to other resources.
To date, they’ve given 22 tattoos to survivors, and they’ve also helped countless others by recommending resources, helping them find counseling and just answering their calls. As authorities and advocates call more attention to the issue, word is spreading: For example, there’s a workshop for tattoo artists in Nebraska to spot signs of trafficking and a program in Kansas to remove survivors’ tattoos.
“We want everyone to know how serious and real this is, even in places you wouldn’t assume,” Ally says. “Anyone can help. Anyone can look for the signs of trafficking or someone who might be a victim. If you know what to look for, it just might save a life.”
Shelby, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is a victim who received a tattoo at the event. She was first trafficked when she was 20. She was young … an addict … an outsider … an easy target. She spent years trapped in forced labor and drug smuggling before she finally got out in her early 30s. Her life is far from normal and she still has a lot of moments where she struggles, but she is incredibly thankful that people are talking.
“This is such a valuable event for our community,” Shelby says. “They have real resources for survivors. And they have help for people who still need to get out.”
Not everyone is on board though. Some tattoo artists don’t want to donate their time or even hear much about trafficking. Plus, Burke doesn’t get as much backing as she’d like. “I wish my county would support me,” she says, by letting her use the space for free or doing more to promote the events.
While Burke doesn’t have direct experience with trafficking, she does know everything that comes with being a survivor because she was raped nearly 10 years ago. Feelings of shame, sadness and fear sometimes haunt her today.
“It can come out of nowhere,” she says. “You question your identity. You get filled with paranoia. You have no feeling of self-worth. You never really completely heal from something like that.”
When Burke later found out she was pregnant from her rape, she knew she wanted to keep the baby. And even though she still has some bad memories of that time, she has a tattoo of an orange bird flying away and holding a diamond (Morgan’s birthstone) to always remind her that she’s a survivor.
Today the Burkes are a blended family of seven, with five kids, and they keep working to build their advocacy network. In addition to more tattoo events in Stevens Point and beyond, Ally hopes to start a shelter for victims of trafficking, sexual abuse and domestic assault. She wants to create a judgment-free place where victims know they can get help.
“After my rape, I went to a family shelter where I was processed, taken to a room and left there alone,” she says. “Nobody checked on me. Nobody offered any kind of direction. I vomited and cried and was paranoid and couldn’t sleep. I wanted help, but no one came. I was all alone.”
She thinks we can do better. Instead of hate and denial, we can give love and acceptance. And for some trafficking victims, we can give tattoos.
Read more: Modern-day slavery — the public markets selling girls for as little as $14.