In 2016, Jessica Lamb went to a tattoo artist to cover a symbol of her painful past – a reminder of exploitation as a teen.

What she got, instead of peace, was even more pain.

“It was just such a horrendous experience for me. I really didn’t care for how I was treated in the process,” said Lamb. 

She decided to take action for others whose unwanted marks came from traumatizing situations.

“I thought, I want to make sure that they are treated with the utmost respect and the utmost care and they’re not being judged or talked down to or sexually harassed,” Lamb said.

What she found was “an incredible network of artists in the tattoo and tattoo removal field with some of the biggest hearts for their community,” Lamb said.

Within the year, the East Atlanta resident launched what is now a network of trauma-informed tattoo artists and tattoo removal specialists that stretches all the way to California.

Lamb is the founder and executive director of Atlanta Redemption Ink (ARI), a nonprofit providing tattoo removals, tattoo coverups and support services to survivors of sex trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, self-harm, addiction and former gang involvement.

Since 2017, more than 500 “overcomers” have been assisted by ARI. One of them, Holly, whose last name has been withheld, says the organization saved her life.

“I was ashamed and so insecure of what was on my body & ARI changed that. They made me happy to be me again,” she wrote, in a message to Lamb. “I received 10 beautiful works of art from ARI to coverup all of my sex trafficking tattoos, and it has impacted me to want to make a change for young women like me as well.” 

Applicants for ARI’s free tattoo-related services are vetted by a scholarship team. Through a new “Skin in the Game” initiative, they can choose to contribute toward cover or removal costs that can range from $100 into the thousands. 

The 80 artists currently in ARI’s network either volunteer their services or work at a negotiated rate.

James Cooper, owner of Gate City Tattoo in East Atlanta Village, and Crystal Boyd, owner of Pür Ink in Alpharetta, have volunteered with ARI from just about its start. Both say they were glad to find a way to help others through their art.

One of Cooper’s first ARI clients stands out most for him. He did an extensive cover-up session for a woman with multiple gang and sex trafficking tattoos, covering them with Japanese peonies.

“She loved it. She cried. She was very happy,” Cooper said. “If you’re trying to move on in your life and you keep seeing tattoos from a previous life it can be hard to move on sometimes.” 

Boyd covered multiple tattoos and a scar from a gunshot wound for one of her ARI clients. Among the approximately 30 she’s worked with, her first particularly touched her heart — a woman who was known for wearing big, bulky boots year-round to hide the sex trafficking branding tattoos on her feet.

“I remember her saying she just couldn’t look at it,” Boyd said. “I found out later that her friends were commenting on how she was wearing flip flops. How good that felt to be that last part of her recovery.”

ARI is already being recognized for its work, which includes offering therapy, an education program, and training nationally and internationally on the history of human branding and its use in commercial sexual exploitation. 

Lamb, 37, made Georgia Trend magazine’s 40 Under 40 list last year, and she was selected as the Social Entrepreneur honoree in Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2022 Leaders in Corporate Citizenship awards.

Aside from her work with ARI, the mother of two works as an art therapist at safe houses and for programs such as Wellspring Living, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides recovery services for women and children at risk or victimized by sexual exploitation.

Mary Frances Bowley, Wellspring Living’s executive director, calls Lamb “a creative and innovative leader in the movement of restoring dignity to trafficked survivors.”

“The practical aspect of Atlanta Redemption Ink is to cover the tattoos which were brandings by the trafficker. But, what Jessica is truly providing for survivors is dignity and a way to envision a new future,” Bowley said. “Wellspring Living is so grateful to Jessica and ARI for providing this incredible service that helps the women that we serve to not be haunted by their past but encouraged toward a new life and a bright future.”

For more information, visit atlantaredemptionink.com.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.