Erasing the ‘Ownership’ Tattoos on Sex-Trafficking Victims

A woman who escaped the industry reflects on how changes to the body can help with recovery.

Naticia Leon, a victim of sex trafficking, has “Smitty” tattooed on her arm—the street name of a former trafficker and a sign that she was his property. (Roc Morin )

During an art-therapy session, Naticia Leon once stitched together fabric dolls without faces. “That’s what it feels like to be trafficked,” she says. “You’re not your own person. You don’t have an identity.”

For eight years, Leon worked across the West Coast of the United States under a series of sex traffickers. Each had named and renamed her many times. “They would tell me that this is what they’re gonna call me,” she explains. “Sometimes it would be Hispanic like Marta or Jessica. That was the case with most Mexican women—especially Marta. There were a lot of those.”

When assuming each persona, “at first, I would shut my emotions off temporarily,” she says. “Then, over time, it became just who I was. I started being monotoned every day—like a robot being programmed. That’s how I react to things all the time now. I’m not happy. I’m not angry. I’m not sad.”

I met the 28-year-old for the first time earlier this year in the waiting room of Jerome Potozkin’s office in Danville, California. The plastic surgeon offers free tattoo removals for sex-trafficking survivors. Syneron Candela, the makers of the PicoWay tattoo-removal laser he uses, arranges their transportation.* Leon was undergoing a second round of treatment to obliterate a mark made on her by one of her pimps. The tattoo reads “Smitty,” the street name of a former trafficker, and a sign to other pimps that she was his property. Nearly all of the women Leon worked with had them. Like her, many survivors are seeking out an array of charitable tattoo cover-up and removal services.

Naticia Leon, a former sex-trafficking victim
(Roc Morin)

It has been a year and a half since Leon escaped. During this time, she has lived in a communal home for former sex-trafficking victims with her young son, run by Love Never Fails, an NGO operating in the San Francisco Bay area. When we met in Potozkin’s office, she greeted me with a hug—something she never would have been capable of until recently. A year and a half ago, even a handshake would have been too much physical contact, she says. Her new capacity for touch was a sign of her rehabilitation.

Still, remnants of past traumas continue to complicate her recovery. She has a recurring nightmare in which an endless series of men appear at her door, echoing a scene that would have been repeated up to 20 times a day while she was working. It was, she recalls, “that terrifying moment when you open the door and you don't know if the person that's coming into your room is going to be safe or if they’re going to hurt you.” In those dreams, the men are always faceless, too.

The violence from her exploiters and her clients was random, yet constant. The women from Love Never Fails describe constant beatings, having guns pressed against their heads, and rags soaked with noxious chemicals forced over their faces. Although difficult to quantify, one study found that 95 percent of sex-trafficking victims had been physically abused while working.

“Every day my traffickers were scared of something,” Leon says. “Would they get robbed? Would the police come in? Would they get enough money? They beat me because they had no one else to beat. They’d beat you if you looked at somebody the wrong way, or wore the wrong makeup, or if they think you had an attitude, or they think you're lying. Whatever it was, they would find a reason if they felt like it.”

Over coffee, Leon demonstrated how to breathe after being hit. “If you get kicked in the stomach or choked bad, you can’t breathe through your mouth—there’s too much of an open gap. You have to breathe through your nose. It’s a different way of breathing.”

Leon continues to address past ordeals like these in intensive therapy sessions at her communal home. The emotional impact of her trauma is slowly fading, and as she undergoes successive laser treatments, so too is the tattoo on her arm that has served as a constant reminder of her former life. “Every time I wash myself, I see it,” she says, “But after I got the first treatment it’s started to disappear. I’m looking forward to when I don’t have to keep seeing it and being reminded every day.”

As Potozkin’s team prepared her for the laser, Leon spoke about the other tattoos on her body—the ones she had chosen for herself. There is a dragon, for protection; the name of her two sons; the name of a former lover; and the name of her biological mother, from whom she was separated at the age of 3.

“She was a prostitute, too,” Leon says. “My dad was a drug dealer, so that’s how I was born. She died when I was 12, I think. I forget how old I was. Somebody killed her over drugs. I guess she owed a lot of money. So, yeah, they found her on Mother’s Day, face down, in the gutter.”

The crackling sounds of the laser began as she continued. “I don’t really remember her. The strongest memory I have is of her talking on the phone, sitting on a brick wall, and I was leaning against her stomach on my back. She was stroking my hair the way I stroke the hair of my own son now. I was put into foster care soon after that, when I was 3 years old. They put us in foster care because our house was burning down. The police came, and there were no adults there, so they put us in the system.”

Leon spoke about her journey through the foster-care network. She lived in seven different homes, one of which she was removed from after she was raped by one of the family members, she says. She got wrapped up in trafficking soon after she aged out of the system. At the time, she was fighting for custody of her first son and needed the money to pay a lawyer.

As the laser session concluded, we discussed the effect that the body has on the mind—how altering one can alter the other. I asked Leon if her relationship to her body had changed. While working as a prostitute, it had been both the only valued part of her and the source of her suffering.

“I don’t see my body as a tool anymore,” she said after a moment of reflection. “I'm a mom now. I’ve escaped. So, that makes me a survivor. Now, people see me as a person and I'm appreciative of that.”

She describes herself as a window that once was bare and barred. The bars are gone now, she says. Her window trim has been painted. She has colorful curtains. “If somebody does open me up,” she says, “it’s to know more about me, and not to just walk through me. And I don’t feel like somebody wants to throw a rock at me. They want to clean me with Windex and see me shine.”

* This article originally misidentified the maker of the tattoo-removal laser. We regret the error.