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'No longer victims': The woman who tattoos sexual abuse survivors

'We share similar but different experiences, and we feel connected because of the trauma; shame; guilt and embarrassment we went through'

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 02 February 2017 14:53 GMT
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Marlo Lualemana works in a tattoo studio in California
Marlo Lualemana works in a tattoo studio in California

The painful process of drumming ink permanently into a person’s skin is a cathartic process – at least that’s what tattoo artist Marlo Kaleo'okalani Lualemana, has seen in her clients. As an artist who helps fellow survivors of sexual assault deal with and recover from their trauma, she knows how a totally unique and permanent tattoo can be healing.

“I can relate to these clients because I'm a sexual assault survivor myself,” Lualemana, who has been tattooing for almost 11 years, tells The Independent. Based at Earthbound Tattoo in Monterey, California, she specialises in Polynesian and tribal body art in monochrome and colour, as well as lettering. As a custom tattooist, no two of her designs are the same.

“We share similar but different experiences, and we feel connected because of the trauma; shame; guilt and embarrassment we went through.

“Most of the time the commonality is that they want a tattoo that represent reclaiming their lives back; empowerment and reminding them that they we are no longer victims but we are survivors.”

“When you can touch people's lives and bring happiness to your clients I feel an overwhelming sense of joy.”

A woman in her mid-20s who was sexually assaulted by a family member between the ages of 12 to 16 is among her most memorable clients. When she finally gained the courage to tell her mother, she was relieved when she gained her full support.

“My client told me this helped her immensely knowing her mother believed her and did her best to help her anyway she could. She still struggled with what happened to her but with the help of her mom she managed to get through it. She's now in her mid-twenties working and going to college. She tells me her tattoo reminds her that she is a survivor and she will not let what happened to her take over her life.”

Another is a woman in her 70s was also assaulted but blamed by her mother in the conservative 1950s.

“She never had anyone to talk to and so because of that she struggled a lot emotionally.” She is now estranged from her children.

“I felt for her deeply and I told her she's not alone. I also told her she's more than welcome to come and talk and just hang out at my shop anytime. She is a spunky; spirited woman with a huge vibrant personality who I have the privilege to call my friend.”

After Lualemana shared her life story with a client, he revealed to her that he was molested by his eldest brother aged 12.

“He has no relationship with his brother today. We shared how we overcame our traumatic experiences and he told me he had no therapy. No one to talk to. He kept it all inside him. He asked me ‘how do you tell someone, anyone, you were sexually assaulted by your own brother?’ and how being a male made this hard to deal with.

“When I told him my story it was like we knew each other for years the words just came pouring out from both of us. I could tell he felt relieved and I was happy he did so with me.”

Lualemana says it is difficult to articulate how it feels to help survivors heal.

A tattoo Lualemana drew for a client recently

“When a client can let down their walls and open themselves up to someone they've met once or twice makes me feel sometimes unworthy, yet so thankful to them for sharing and trusting in me to share traumatic experiences.

“When it comes to tattooing sexual assault survivors once they know I'm a survivor as well they feel comfortable in allowing me the freedom to come up with a design just for them.”

“My clients usually have ideas but no clear vision as to how they want their tattoo to look. My clients tell me you're the artist so we trust you. That is a huge word: ‘trust’ and sometimes I do feel pressured but I love challenges and have yet to be told I missed the mark.”

But Lualemana has never advertised herself as someone who tattoos those with sexual assaults. Instead, her sensitivity has spread word of mouth and she believes her approach to getting inked makes clients feel comfortable enough to open up to her about their most deeply disturbing and terrifying experiences.

“I have had many clients who have sought me out because of my work and feel I may be the artist for them. Sexual assault is not discussed beforehand until after we've met in person and they share the personal feelings with me. This allows my clients to feel free and unhindered making tattooing a memorable experience for both of us.

“Clients come in for an initial consultation and we talk about what they want to get in detail. It just so happens as we get to know each other and my clients feel more at ease they tell me about themselves."

She adds: "As we talk and discuss ideas I tell them their tattoo should be something they will love to look at not just for a month but for a lifetime.”

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