Branded with the initials of her abusive ex on her calf, she thought the mark would never be covered up, living on her body forever.
“The reason why he put it there was he said that even if I didn’t want to be with him, I was always going to remember him,” said the woman, a survivor of domestic violence who spoke with The Times under the condition of anonymity.
As Heath Migliore put the final touches on her tattoo — an owl holding a timepiece — she cried.
Migliore put an extensive amount of detail into the cover-up. One feature is the clock’s time, 9:15.
“I put 9:15 on there for Sept. 15, and that was the day that me and my dad were actually able to talk again and try to fix our relationship and stuff after everything that had happened,” the woman said, as she had been isolated from family by her ex.
With no trace of her ex’s mark, the tattoo “helped me close that chapter of my life,” she said.
“The only thing left aside from emotional scars is something they have to look at every day, a reminder, something they have to explain to their kids, or to their family, or to their church or business,” said Migliore, owner and artist at Mind’s Eye Tattoo on McEver Road in Flowery Branch.
Migliore and his shop have tattooed dozens through a partnership with Atlanta Redemption Ink, a grassroots nonprofit helping those with self-harm scars, track marks from drug abuse and gang tattoos as well as survivors of the sex trade and domestic violence to get free cover-up tattoos or tattoo removals.
Coupled with counseling services, executive director and founder Jessica Lamb called it an “all-around system of care” for those with physical reminders of their painful pasts.
“It’s more than just the tattoo. It’s basically starting a whole new chapter, but the tattoo plays a huge part of it,” Lamb said.
A 16-year-old runaway, Lamb was looking for a job when she encountered a sex trafficker posing as an employer.
“When I went on my job interview, I got lured in. I was there for about six months. Nobody knew where I was. I couldn’t get out,” she said.
Lamb eventually escaped but not before being branded on her wrist and backside. Now a mother and married to a first responder, she has covered up the wrist tattoo with flowers, an experience that “feels like freedom.”
“It’s like breaking that final tie between you and your abuser,” she said.
A former law enforcement officer with Gainesville Police and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Migliore transferred to Habersham County in a strictly undercover role. He had a passion for graphic design, previously performing sketch work in his time with Hall County.
“Your eyes were open really quick in that type of covert, law enforcement capacity to some of the things that go on that you didn’t even know about. You thought it was just on TV,” he said.
When he felt he was getting a little too old for the job, he started moonlighting as a tattoo artist before leaving Habersham County in 2014.
He and his wife, Camille, run the tattoo shop and the salon next door on McEver Road. The shop is replete with fleur-de-lis, an homage to his Louisiana upbringing.
“With them, if we can fight through the tears and some of the emotional stuff, we create something custom for them. We let them be a part of the creation process,” Migliore said of his work with Atlanta Redemption Ink.
It’s a process that can draw on the emotions for those holding the needle and those taking the ink.
“We’re big babies, too. We’ll cry right there with them. But to get them through that process and see it done, they’re just elated and so proud that they have something now that they can look at,” he said.
Atlanta Redemption Ink works with 27 artists across the state of Georgia following an intensive vetting process. The nonprofit received 167 applications last year.
Applicants must be “in some form of recovery, addiction treatment or safety program for at least three months,” according to the nonprofit’s website.
Those with self-harm marks have to be in active recovery and not injured for one year, so that the scars have had time to heal.
Working on this type of skin takes a certain level of technical ability, as Migliore uses different needles and speeds to carefully ink the skin.
“Scars don’t come back like regular skin. It’s a little thinner, a little bit easier to disrupt and you don’t want to scar it even more,” he said.
With increased awareness regarding sex trafficking as the Super Bowl draws near, Lamb said the group is working to have the trafficking help hotline in the shop as well as designating certain shops as safe spaces.