On March 1, an 18-year-old woman anonymously posted a horrific account of rape and sexual assault on Reddit against a celebrity tattoo artist in the Indian city of Kochi, in Kerala state.
According to the post, tattoo artist Sujeesh PS sexually assaulted her while he was holding a tattoo needle against her spine. “I didn't speak. I just froze and couldn't process what the fuck was happening,” the survivor wrote. The teenager said the accused proceeded to rape her, then told her to return the following week as “the tattoo is incomplete” and said she would not need to pay for it.
Prior to the assault, Sujeesh PS had allegedly asked the survivor invasive personal questions on whether she was sexually active, what her relationship status was, and whether she was interested in BDSM.
Within a week, the Reddit post went viral and several young women spoke out on social media with similar allegations of rape and sexual assault against Sujeesh. On March 5, he was arrested by police on charges of sexual assault. Police seized laptops, CCTV footage and other records from the accused’s studio. According to Kochi city police commissioner CH Nagaraju, investigators will be recording 164 statements from witnesses and complainants.
So far six women have filed police complaints against Sujeesh, however many still remain reluctant to come forward to police. This includes the teenager who wrote the original Reddit post, who has not yet filed a police complaint.
Sujeesh’s tattoo studio, ‘Inkfected’, is known for its celebrity clientele including local actresses, a former state weight lifting champion, a stunt rider and a celebrity makeup artist. The studio’s instagram page has around 53,200 followers.
“This person was very careful about his branding. Many celebrity clients could be seen at the studio, promoting it and getting tattoos from it,” journalist Haritha John, who reported on the case, told VICE World News.
One of the survivors, Arsha, who only agreed to be identified with their first name, has been documenting the anonymous accounts of other survivors, which include 20-30 women.
“Most of the women are reluctant to come out and move forward legally because they feel, ‘what are we going to get out of it?’ and that [other abusers] walk free,” Arsha told VICE World News. “Most probably Sujeesh might also tomorrow.”
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 77 rape cases were reported across the country on average every day in 2020. However conviction rates in rape cases remained relatively low in India at under 30 percent.
Most of Sujeesh’s victims were young women in their late teens or in their early twenties getting tattoos for the first time.
“He only did this to the first timers who did not know about the tattoo procedures, they don't know whether rubbing there or cleaning up the private parts is okay or whether it is a procedure or not. He was very cunning about that which makes this case unique. It was not a momentary thing. It was a planned crime,” said the journalist John.
According to John, some of the survivors also come from conservative families and fear backlash from their families if they come forward.
“This lack of support from the family is because it's a tattoo studio and many orthodox families are against tattooing,” said John. “Many of them went without the knowledge of the family or without full permission of the family.”
Arsha also shared the victim-blaming she and other survivors faced in reliving their trauma in law enforcement settings.
“We did face questions in the police station like 'why didn't you take someone who knew about tattoo procedures? Why did you go alone? Why didn't you speak about this two years ago?',” said Arsha.
“But how is all of this relevant? It is very insensitive.”
Arsha said the way authorities typically handle rape cases worsens survivor trauma.
“People dealing with sexual harassment and in positions of power should be sensitised, otherwise the whole experience for the survivor becomes very traumatic.” For Arsha, empathetic female police officers stepping in to make them feel supported was key. “Any woman should feel safe and feel courageous enough to walk into a police station and register a case but we don't feel safe in India.”
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