In the last 24 hours, Memphis Cadeau has been bludgeoned with hundreds of stories of some of the world’s most appalling horrors.
Strangers have told her about their experiences with human trafficking and abusive relationships. She’s heard about racism, gang life and forced branding.
Cadeau is no therapist — she’s the co-owner of Hamilton’s Grim City Tattoo Club. The shop just announced that starting this month, it will offer free laser tattoo removal of all racist imagery or symbols, human trafficking tattoos, marks from radiation treatments, and other tattoos or skin discolourations linked to traumatic events.
She made a social media post about the no-strings-attached service on Tuesday afternoon.
By the next day, Cadeau had been inundated by 756 emails asking for help.
“The stories attached to some of them are sickening. The first one you can get through, the second one you get through… but by the time you’ve seen 50 or 60 of these messages come in and the photos, you actually want to throw up and cry,” Cadeau told CBC News in the upstairs of her expansive shop in the city’s east end.
“A lot of them have been through severely abusive relationships, where boyfriends and stuff have branded them with their names, or basically ‘property of.’ There’s been a lot of people who have had tattoos done in horrible situations, like human trafficking, they’ve escaped, and now they’re stuck with these symbols.”
Those symbols are a mark of violence. Pimps sometimes “brand” women with tattoos to show ownership.
“[Then] there’s a lot of people who — when they were young were influenced by friends, family, boyfriends, husbands, whoever — and they ended up with German eagles, swastikas, word choices that you wouldn’t want, and now they’re stuck with these tattoos that they can’t afford to get rid of,” she said.
Free removal of such imagery is a movement that has been surging in recent years, exemplified by the Random Acts of Tattoo Project in the U.S., which fundraises for free tattoo coverups and laser removal.
Laser removal is not cheap, and it’s time consuming. On average, getting a tattoo burned out of your skin usually costs somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2,000, Cadeau says, and can take about eight to ten sessions.
It’s also exceedingly painful, with some people describing it as worse than getting a tattoo itself though, in online posts, Grim City describes its laser as “mostly painless.”
Cadeau is originally from South Africa, and says members of her own family once held racist views, spawned by the vitriol inherent in apartheid. That all changed when they moved to Canada, and “opened their eyes.”
People deserve a second chance, she says.
“I don’t judge these people. I just want them to have a chance to have somebody actually listen to them, give a damn about what they’re saying, and actually help them move on and have a better life.”
In some cases, the removal isn’t just for one person, but for a family. One woman reached out to Cadeau and said she was forced into a prison gang tattoo while incarcerated.
Now, years removed from that experience, she worries about her children asking questions about the ink on her hands.
“How do you tell your kid it was from a prison gang?” Cadeau said.
It’s those kinds of stories that exemplify why a service like this is needed, she said. People have even been contacting her from across the border in the U.S., looking for help.
“It’s literally a fresh start.”