Branded by their pimps or abusive boyfriends, a growing number of teenage girls in Edmonton are getting free help from a tattoo removal specialist.
In what appears to be a disturbing new trend, the men tattoo their initials or names on girls' arms, necks, backsides or private parts.
It happens without consent, often after the girls are plied with drugs and alcohol.
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"As far as I"m concerned it's aggravated assault or sexual assault," said advocate Mark Cherrington, who has become aware of nine cases since April.
"It sort of demonstrates ownership and another way of control."
The cost of removal is far out of reach for the victims, some of whom are involved in the sex trade so they can eat or find a place to stay, Cherrington said.
One treatment costs at least $200, and removing a tattoo can require several sessions.
That's where Ben Alway of Second Skin Tattoo Removal comes in. With a friendly smile and no questions asked, Alway erases their tags for free.
Cherrington provides transportation to the appointments, which take place in a treatment room at the back of a tattoo studio on 107th Avenue. And when a shaky girl emerges, he's waiting with ibuprofen and words of support.
"It's a clear outcome that these girls can see that this stain on their life has literally been removed," said Cherrington.
Part of the healing process
It's part of a wider service Alway provides to young people looking for fresh starts.
Alway has removed facial tattoos, as well as gang markings and crude slogans. He estimates he has helped up to 50 clients referred by parole officers or social workers.
'It's a half hour out of my time that can potentially change somebody's life' - Ben Alway, Second Skin Tattoo Removal
"It's a half hour out of my time that can potentially change somebody's life or their immediate future," said Alway, whose own body is mostly covered in a colourful ink collage that has undergone the occasional removal.
He pointed out that some markings could potentially interfere with employment or relationship prospects.
"But also mentally, it's a constant reminder," said Alway. "And I think by even going through the process, even though it's painful, that can be part of the healing process as well."
Last Tuesday, Alway guided a laser over the black ink markings on a 24-year-old mother.
Despite the discomfort — compared to the constant sting of snapped elastics — Zara looked pleased as she and Alway checked out her progress.
The F-word she once inked into her knuckle was fading, as was the teardrop at the corner of her eye, symbolizing someone close she lost.
Regret over tattoos acquired during a troubled youth reached its peak with the birth of her infant daughter. Zara dreaded the thought of the judgment she could someday face meeting with teachers or looking for work.
"I feel relieved and I feel like I'm able to start the new chapter in my life, finally," she said. "He's doing a really awesome thing for people."