Pimps use a number of techniques to control and manipulate the women they sell, many of which leave long-lasting emotional scars. But one control technique which also leaves physical scars is branding. In the underground world of forced and coerced prostitution, pimps mark women and girls as property with tattoos. It’s the same principal as writing your name inside your shirt, but instead of a garment being claimed, it’s a human being.
Chicago police recently noticed several girls between 13 and 18 in prostitution had the same tattoo — “P-Child” inked on their backs, chests, or shoulders. The distinct markings led them to Datqunn Sawyer, a pimp who was forcing nine underage girls into prostitution. He gave them all new names beginning with the letter P and used the tattoos to brand them as being in his “stable”. Also in Chicago, pimp Alex Campbell, owner of a brothel masquerading as a massage parlor, forced the women he controlled to get his birthday 9/17 tattooed on the backs of their necks. Another California-based pimp managed to ink his 16-year-old victim withing a couple weeks of meeting her on Myspace. And some pimps choose more painful brands for their victims, including signature burns and actual cattle prods.
For pimps, tattoo branding serves a number of purposes. It marks victims as their property, sending a message to other pimps to stay away. It helps them advertise to buyers looking for specific types of girls, especially young ones. And perhaps most importantly, it sends a powerful message to the victim herself: I own you, and I own you forever. A tattoo is a permanent physical mark, and pimps use the psychology of that mark to make victims believe theirs is a permanent relationship. If victims try and leave their pimp, the tattoo serves as a reminder of their abuse. And, of course, it signifies the bearer as a slave.
Tattoos have been used to mark slaves since ancient Egypt, when slaves were tattooed with symbols to denote their rank. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ship captains branded slaves to demonstrate ownership and dominance. Slave owners in the American South would also brand or mark slaves, like cattle, as a way of labeling property. And now, modern slave-masters are branding their chattel with ink. The designs may be different, but the effects are the same.
Branding via tattooing or other means is not just an afterthought or a silly projection of ego for pimps. It’s a real system of coercion, guerrilla marketing, and branding all rolled into one little design. It’s a way for pimps to always be looking over the shoulder (or chest or back) of the girls and women they control. And it’s a system of communication marking people as property that dates back to the beginning of slavery. But learning how to use that system against pimps, like the Chicago police did, is the first step to breaking down their ownership claims over women.