The first tattoo was needled into the skin of her back, her boyfriend’s name “Salem” inked on a banner draped across a heart. It was a sign of love, of support, of loyalty. He chose the spot. It was his way of saying he would have her back no matter where she was. He was behind her, always there. At least that’s what Jennifer Kempton thought at the time.
Salem took care of her for a while. She was in the midst of a drug addiction when they met, and he had a habit, too. But even more than the drugs, she was dependent upon the idea that a man loved her, was there for her. As both of their addictions grew, he asked her to dance at strip clubs around Columbus. Then he arranged for her to become an escort when stripping didn’t bring in enough money. He urged her to sell her body, and she justified it by telling herself that his addiction was forcing his hand. That he really loved her. She got another tattoo of his name, this time on her upper left arm.
She bounced around the city’s strip joints, but her body couldn’t withstand the lifestyle and the addiction for long. She was worn out, broken down, exhausted. Soon, the clubs no longer accepted her, so her only option was turning tricks on the street. She worked the corners of Franklinton for both of them; Salem pushed her the whole time. In retrospect, that tattoo on her back implied something far more sinister—she had no way out. “You can’t go nowhere. I’m right there behind you,” he told her. “You can’t run.”
Eventually, her boyfriend-turned-trafficker felt himself losing control of her to the disorienting gravity of the streets. He manipulated her into getting one last tattoo: “Property of Salem” scrawled just above her genitals. Those words left no room for delusion.
Jennifer sits on the front porch of a ranch-style home. Her thin necklace is held together by a silver cross, which rests sideways in the jugular notch where her collarbones meet. She often speaks in metaphors, of light and darkness—a Biblical tenor. Her voice is inflected with streetwise cadence and rural Mount Gilead drawl. She was born there, 45 minutes north of the city. Her life was never easy.
“That’s what the grooming process is—it’s an entrapment phase, you know, to get you to rely upon them, and depend on them, and love them, and want to do whatever you have to do to please them.”
“All through childhood, the only thing I could ever remember being or wanting to be is, oddly, just part of a real family,” she says. “I never really had dreams of being a doctor or anything specific.” She worked in hotels as a maid and a desk clerk, and then she landed a job as a daycare teacher, which she loved. But after several years her addiction took control.
She first turned to drugs as a coping mechanism for emotional issues that stemmed from an abusive upbringing. She lost her virginity violently. Her addiction and her past led her to seek codependent relationships, like what she eventually found with Salem. But what she originally thought was the love and support she craved was instead his grooming process to coerce her into sex trafficking.
“Sometimes when you’re vulnerable and you have nobody else to turn to, you really don’t have much of an option at that point,” she says. “But that’s, to me, what the grooming process is—it’s an entrapment phase, you know, to get you to rely upon them, and depend on them, and love them, and want to do whatever you have to do to please them.”
Even as any semblance of the relationship fell apart and her life deteriorated, like many women trapped in trafficking, Jennifer didn’t see an alternative.
“Even if he would beat my ass,” she says, “and then I would go out to turn a trick, yes I was out on the street and I coulda flagged down a cop. Yeah I coulda walked away and never came back. And go to what? What do I have to go to?”
She tied a rope around her neck in the basement of a crack house. Jennifer was done. She relaxed and let the weight of her body lean into the cords. She felt the darkness of her life overcome her, and the tortured memories began to dissipate…
“That person in the mirror just transformed. That person in the mirror is no longer this drug-addicted, homeless prostitute. It’s a flower in bloom now, and I can grow now.”
After Salem was finished with her, or realized he was going to lose her anyway, she was essentially sold to drug gangs on the West Side of Columbus. She was given new branding to reflect her new ownership. On her neck near her right ear, a tattoo artist inked the gang’s insignia: the words “King Munch” under a lopsided crown. Her entire existence became the violent and corrupt world of the streets—the arrests, the beatings, the rapes.
She’s lead a life so tragic that to list the tragedies one after another would be numbing, not in the sense of losing feeling but in the sense of it not being real. How many times can you read the word “rape” before it no longer seems like a word? How can a human life get so f*cked up and bent toward destruction? But as ruinous as everything had become, all other injustices paled in comparison to the final rape. It broke her.
“It was very violent. I felt like it violated me more than any of the others. It was perverted and disgusting, the things that this man had me do. And it triggered something in my brain. All the traumatic things that have happened to me in my life, on top of that last rape, led me to the brink of, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I can’t suffer in this misery, in this addiction, in this sadness, in this darkness. I can’t suffer here anymore.’”
So she tightened the noose. Most people fight asphyxiation—they claw at the rope even if they put it there. But Jennifer didn’t fight. As darkness crept over her, she relaxed and let it come.
And that’s when she hit the floor. The rope snapped when she passed her burden onto the cords rather than fighting. She was angry at first—even her suicide was a failure—but then she had a moment of clarity and realized God was calling her to another purpose. The next morning she checked herself into the drug rehab facility at Netcare.
April 17, 2013—that’s when she finally broke free, after nearly five years as a victim of trafficking. The date is on the tip of her tongue before the question is out of my mouth. Survival of a life like hers isn’t a state of being; it’s earned and counted each day, all the way back to the first.
She got sober. But there was still a claim on her body, and she had to look at Salem’s name regularly.
“Every time I got in the shower, every time I looked in the mirror, it was just a constant, daily reminder of what I’ve been through and all the misery I’ve suffered, and the pain,” she says. She began putting money aside so that she could cover the tattoo of his name on her arm, which she did after several months. The new tattoo gave her a sense of freedom she says, and she shows off the large colorful design, which represents First Corinthians, the Book of Love.
One day she told her anti-trafficking advocate about the Property of Salem tattoo on her lower abdomen. Her advocate was disgusted and sent a photo of it to a family member, who immediately offered $200 to get it covered. Jennifer approached Chuck Waldo, an artist at Among the Living tattoo shop in Lancaster, to see how far she could stretch the money. He agreed to cover all three remaining brands for $200, a pittance for the work.
“We are rising above that darkness and joining hands, and making this band of women that are strong, independent, beautiful [women], and saying, ‘You can’t have me. This is my body.’”
The King Munch insignia on her neck was the first to go. The primitive gang tat was replaced by “a beautiful blooming flower coming out of darkness into the light.”
“That person in the mirror just transformed,” she says. “That person in the mirror is no longer this drug-addicted, homeless prostitute. It’s a flower in bloom now, and I can grow now.” The brand on her abdomen became a heart-shaped locket, while the very first tattoo on her back remained the same, except “Salem” in the banner was changed to “I believe again.”
Her rebirth inspired her to offer the same freedom to other survivors. In her time on the streets, she entered countless drug houses to see a tattoo artist being paid or fed dope to ink gang members. When prostitutes came in, the gang often asked the artists to tattoo symbols or initials onto the women to ward off other traffickers. Most women consent as proof of their loyalty, but in some cases they’re held down and forced. Jennifer recalls one woman who had dollar signs tattooed onto her temples against her will. It was a declaration of property, an investment—a trademark in blood and stain.
So Jennifer founded Survivor’s Ink, a nonprofit devoted to covering these bondage tattoos. Her mission is to raise awareness of branding within sex trafficking and to help victims heal and escape their previous lives. The organization raises money for tattoo scholarships for women who were coerced, manipulated, or forced into trafficking; have tattoos or scars related to their experience; and have been actively involved in a recovery process or treatment program for six months to a year. Then she connects the victims with Chuck at Among the Living, and new artwork is produced at a deep discount.
She helps them become survivors.
Jennifer has leveraged the horrors of her life to help others trapped in similar situations. She has told her story to raise money for her organization at fundraisers for Art 4 Abolition and at Reynoldsburg Church of the Nazarene. In December, her nonprofit partnered with Gracehaven, a local organization that provides rehabilitation and housing for youth victims of human trafficking. She has also received support from Jacob’s Way, a sober living community that has agreed to offer resources and assistance.
Thus far, Survivor’s Ink has provided tattoo scholarships for 11 women. Jennifer sat with every one of them during the process—holding hands, or watching nearby, or crying at their side—whatever they wanted. Helping them heal and fight back has been therapeutic for her, more than any medication, church, support group, or even the passage of time. But it’s also agonizing and visceral.
“Every time you hear their story, you have to relive your own,” she says, speaking softly for the first time, the hurt evident in her voice. “Every time you’re tryin’ to give them good advice, it reminds you of what you’ve been through. Every time you see them cry, you feel the pain you’ve been through.”
Almost two years after she escaped, she’s still struggling. There are nightmares and flashbacks, and she suffers from PTSD. She recently took a leave from her job at Freedom a la Cart—a local catering company that works with survivors of human trafficking—to focus on her recovery and relationship with God. She remains committed to Survivor’s Ink, but as portrayed in an article and online documentary published in December by the British newspaper The Guardian, she was also participating in outreach to prostitutes, and her PTSD has forced her to take a step back from that as well.
Yet her story continues to shed light on an ugly reality. At the time of The Guardian article, she had 18 or 19 pending applications; now she estimates there are 58, and donations have come in from around the world. People have also contacted her for help setting up similar organizations across the country. She wants to open Survivor’s Ink chapters globally, but she’s adamant that each one be led by a survivor—not a church group, not an advocate, not anyone else—a survivor. This is their fight.
“The bond I formed with every woman I’ve encountered with Survivor’s Ink is unbreakable. It’s a very powerful thing for me. It’s almost like we are rising above that darkness and joining hands, and making this band of women that are strong, independent, beautiful [women], and saying, ‘You can’t have me. This is my body.’”
For more information or to donate to Survivor’s Ink, visit gracehaven.me/survivors-ink. If you suspect someone is the victim of sex trafficking or would like to find out how you can help, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or visit the website, traffickingresourcecenter.org.