The Healing Power of Restoration Ink
For victims of human trafficking, physical marks come in a variety of forms. Some are scars from drug use that often accompany such a lifestyle. Other marks result from acts of violence perpetrated by their abusers.
Still, more marks are surprisingly elaborate, artistically rendered, and permanent. Tattoos, designs made upon the body by inserting indelible ink under the skin, are a traditional art form, a symbolic and frequently beautiful method of self–expression. But for human traffickers, tattoos signify their ownership of a victim. Such marks denote a life of pain, degradation, and even slavery.
People who have escaped such bondage see their tattoo, whether it be on a visible or private area of the body, as an agonizing reminder of the past. These memories are frequently an obstacle on the path to recovery and salvation.
Through Restoration Ink, a ministry based in Dover–Foxcroft, Maine, the tattoos of former trafficking victims undergo a remarkable transformation. Symbols and marks previously made by people who had mistreated them are now skillfully covered and reconfigured. Victims can reclaim themselves with a design that is unique and special. This literal and physical transformation births a chance for them to build a new memory and life.
‘She’s been branded’
Jennifer Clark is the Anti–Trafficking Ministries coordinator at the Salvation Army’s Portland (Citadel), Maine, Corps. Her mother, Beth Stumpfel, is the founder and director of Restoration Ink.
In the summer of 2015, Clark was in Bangor to teach pastors how to recognize the marks on a woman being trafficked. Clark visited her mother for lunch and told her a woman from The Well, an outreach program at the corps to victims of human trafficking, would join them.
“Mom, please don’t stare,” said Clark, “but this woman—she’s been branded.”
Stumpfel recalls, “I felt nauseous by that word, branded. I had always considered tattoos a choice. I never saw them as symbols of ownership of another human being.”
Tattooed on the woman’s neck was a drawing of a wad of cash. She explained that it had meant she was for sale on the streets. She also had two gang tattoos, representing two men to whom she had belonged.
As the women talked, Stumpfel casually mentioned that she knew an artist in Bangor, Maine, who could help her change the tattoo.
Stumpfel’s brother–in–law, a former schoolteacher, told her about a former student who had opened a tattoo shop in Bangor named Forecastle Tattoo. But by the time she contacted him, he had sold Forecastle Tattoo to another tatooer named Sam Wood.
Stumpfel told Wood about human trafficking and how it was no longer a crisis in just big cities such as New York and Portland, but had found its way to local communities like Bangor.
“When Beth mentioned these small suburbs, it hit close to home. You don’t want to think about that underbelly of your own town, but it exists,” said Wood.
“It’s easy to click ‘Like’ in social media on an article exposing the horrors of human trafficking. But being part of Restoration Ink is something that I can directly do to help someone who wants to leave that part of their life behind them.”
Wood agreed to help the woman cover her tattoos. Since that first meeting, he has transformed as many as a dozen tattoos with his original designs. Some women come with Stumpfel, others come from Hope Rising, a Maine residential treatment program and home for survivors of trafficking. Most of the funding for the program comes from the Church of the Open Bible in Charleston, Maine, where Stumpfel is a member.
‘Property of …’
Cover–up tattoo projects such as the ones done through Restoration Ink are among the most difficult to do, with some taking several hours and multiple sessions.
“Most of the tattoos that come in to be covered are poorly done,” says Wood. “They were made using dangerous homemade methods or for cheap by someone with no experience.”
“But the ones that affect me the most are the well–done tattoos with the name of their trafficker large and clearly written. They’re usually designed with flowers, hearts, or a popular cartoon character.”
Wood remembers seeing a victim with the words “Property of,” followed by her trafficker’s name, written on her lower abdomen.
“That one was professionally done. Someone paid a lot of money for it; he really wanted his name to stand out on this poor woman.”
Kasie Robbins, a former trafficking victim of 17 years, has 22 tattoos. The first was done with a guitar string and a video game system motor. The tattoos on her feet were done with staples instead of tattoo needles. Along with various gang signs, she has the word Chaos (the street name of a man who told her he would kill her if she ever left him) tattooed alongside a drawing of a pitchfork. As she was having wings tattooed on her back, she suffered a drug overdose—while her daughter slept in a room upstairs.
Today, Kasie is a women’s home director for the Cityreach Network. She shares her testimony at church meetings, hoping to help more people escape from human trafficking. She met Stumpfel at a Faith & Justice summit and learned about Restoration Ink.
When Kasie visited Sam Wood at Forecastle, she cried as she showed him her tattoos. They discussed how he would cover them. Kasie said Sam understood what she felt, what she was going through, and her personal journey from trafficking victim to today. They decided to cover the one on her left shoulder first. The process will take three separate sessions.
Robbins said, “The Restoration Ink ministry is giving victims the gift of not having to relive that painful part of their life, and at no financial cost to them. I grew up in a world where I had to give something to get something back. But that’s not what Restoration Ink is. That’s not what God is.”*
More Than We Can Imagine
Wood says what he enjoys most about Restoration Ink is helping women remove images that represent painful memories. He is also inspired by the work they do to help other women get off the street and on a path to recovery.
One of his most memorable Restoration Ink experiences was covering a seahorse tattoo on a woman’s lower back. During the three sessions, she was energetic and shared her experiences as a victim of trafficking. She also talked about turning her life around, getting a job, and reconnecting with her family.
“When the tattoo was finished, she stood, looked at the final work in the mirror, and went mute. It was the only time I had ever seen her silent,” said Wood.
“She turned to me, burst into tears, and wept for five minutes. We exchanged lots of hugs as she said ‘thank you’ many times over.
“To me, that’s the perfect example of the healing power of Restoration Ink. This girl was a positive person, open about her past, and committed to making changes to her life. But deep inside, that innocuous symbol branded on her body bothered her much more than any of us could imagine.”
New Needs, New Projects
Restoration Ink shows that there are always new ways to serve that can completely change a person’s life. All we must look for is the need.
Beth Stumpfel, who has no tattoos herself, said, “The Lord has used me for a lot of ministries, but I never thought my next one would be working with tattoos.”
She is still amazed at how God used people and organizations to create Restoration Ink: the woman from The Well, Sam Wood and Forecastle Tattoo, Hope Rising (which has several women waiting and ready to receive cover–ups), and the Church of the Open Bible, which continues to help by providing financial and spiritual support.
“A ministry like Restoration Ink can be done anywhere, from the smallest church to the largest organization, like The Salvation Army,” says Stumpfel. “Visit a local recovery house, talk to people who know how to reach victims of human trafficking, and find a talented artist who recognizes the need to help these women as much as you do. God brings these projects to you. All you have to say is ‘yes.’”
*To read more of Kasie’s testimony, go to Healing Both Sides.
by Hugo Bravo
For more information on Restoration Ink, visit www.facebook.com/restorationink or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To donate to the Restoration Ink program, send a check or money order to Restoration Ink, 610 East Sangerville Rd, Sangerville, ME 04479