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Some Abusers Force Victims into a Tattoo
Abusers use this permanent art to show ownership. How two survivors found healing in cover-up artwork
- Jan 16, 2023
Kate endured multiple types of abuse at the hands of her then-boyfriend during their five-year relationship. Being coerced into getting his name tattooed on her hip was one of the least traumatic control tactics, yet it left the longest-lasting reminder of abuse.
“I didn't even think about it being an abuse tactic at the time,” Kate says. “I just thought that was my own personal slice of hell.”
How It Came About
Kate’s boyfriend was no stranger to getting in trouble with the law. He went to jail a couple of times during their relationship.
“It was about four years into our relationship, and I think he knew I was trying to save money to leave him,” Kate says. “The idea apparently ‘popped into his head’ during the last stint he did. When he got out, he had my name tattooed across his whole forearm. He loved to do bizarre, controlling things and then treat me like the bad guy for being totally put off by it.”
Then, he started in on her to reciprocate by getting his name tattooed on her body.
“It was a period of months that he tried to wear me down,” she says. “Eventually, he figured out how to make a PayPal account and connected my bank account information to it. He could drain me dry in a second and had me convinced he would leave me and my daughter with nothing [if I didn’t get the tattoo]. It was easier to just get the dang tattoo. And, as much as I hated it, agreeing to get it probably saved me. It gave me much-needed time to get my things together as best I could without too much suspicion.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Kate escaped from her boyfriend with her daughter last year. But the tattoo remained. And it became a constant reminder of what Kate had been through.
“It led to a really dark place where I was filled with self-loathing and disgust every time I saw it,” Kate says. “There were a few times I seriously considered burning it or disfiguring it somehow.”
Choosing a Meaningful Redesign
Fortunately, Kate was able to stick it out and save up to get the tattoo safely covered. She also wanted to be in a better place mentally before committing to a design.
“[The tattoo] was very much hindering my ‘self-love’ journey I was on,” she says. “I also wanted to try to date again, but clearly a traumatic tattoo of the name of a guy that tormented me for years? Not a great conversation to just have to whip out. Still, I needed to sort through all the bad feelings before I rewarded myself with a cover-up.”
In 2022, about 10 months after escaping, Kate began the process of getting her tattoo covered.
The “after” of Kate’s tattoo. Her abusive ex forced her to get his name tattooed on her and she later covered it with an image of a bears.
“It took me a while to sort out all the other broken pieces of my life at the time, so I had a long time to decide on a design. I have always vibed with mama bears doing everything it takes to protect their cubs, but I wanted more than just the plain silhouette,” Kate says. “I went to my artist with the basics I wanted, and she made magic happen. Above the bears are the zodiac constellations to match [my daughter and me]. I specifically did not want words or lettering. I wanted the image to speak for itself visually.”
It took a few sessions and she plans to continue adding to the piece as time goes on, but for now, the tattoo has been exactly what she’s needed to help her heal.
“It is very symbolic for me that I covered him up with something that represented what remains,” she says. “I finally was able to do right by myself and my daughter and get away from him forever.”
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Lacy’s Tattoo Transformation
Lacy, too, was coerced into getting a tattoo by an abuser. Her then-boyfriend wanted her to get his name tattooed on her, but she refused. That’s when he came up with the idea of getting matching tattoos of the Chinese symbol for “eternity.”
“It was about a year and a half into our relationship, and he told me that having matching tattoos like this would mean we could never leave each other, and we would always have the other person with us,” she says. “Then he told me that if I didn’t get the tattoo, it would show I didn’t love him.”
Lacy’s ex got the symbol tattooed on his neck. She got hers done on her ankle. But instead of placating him, their tattoos continued to be a point of contention.
“Over time, the tattoo became less of a ‘symbol of our love’ and more of a brand. Every time I wanted to leave, he would point out that we had the tattoos that tied us together for eternity. He would also point to his tattoo and tell people, ‘See that? Her matching one is on her ankle. It means she belongs to me.’”
After Lacy escaped with her son, the the ink bothered her even more. But instead of getting it covered, Lacy decided to have the artwork transformed into something meaningful to her.
“I got the butterfly tattoo added onto the eternity one to symbolize my freedom from eternity with him,” she says. “I don’t want to let myself forget everything I went through, because I don’t want to also forget the strength I had to survive it.”
The “after” of Lacy's tattoo. The symbol at the bottom is the original tattoo her abusive ex forced her to get; she later added the butterfly figure.
Forced Branding Is a Power and Control Move, Will Likely Escalate
Forcing a survivor to get a tattoo is a blatant tactic of power and control meant to intimidate a partner. It can be the start of their control—if a partner relents to being branded by an abuser, the abuser may escalate to more dangerous or audacious demands. A tattoo can also serve to brainwash a victim—they may start to believe they do belong to this abusive partner, or that no one else would ever love them with a visible reminder of the abuser on their body.
Like in Kate’s case, an abuser may use threats of additional control or harm to force a victim to get a tattoo. In some cases, survivors may decide it’s safer to relent on this demand and deal with it once they reach a place of safety. Only a survivor knows for sure when and how it’s safest to separate from an abusive partner.
Erasing Painful Reminders
If an abuser forced you to get a tattoo and it’s causing you turmoil, it might be cathartic to have it removed or covered up with new artwork of your choosing. If you can’t afford it, look for an organization in your area that will help fund the work or seek out an artist who is willing to do the job for free or at a discounted rate. Cover Ups Against Abuse appears to maintain a list of tattoo artists willing to perform free cover-up tattoos for survivors of abuse; however, always vet tattooists prior to getting work done. (DomesticShelters.org has no affiliation with Cover Ups Against Abuse and cannot vouch for any artists listed.)
Photo by Adrian Boustead for Pexels.
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