An Article Reported in Ink

I was in my late 20s when I got my first tattoo, tiny enough to tuck under my watchband. It was a choice I made carefully, one that organically led to other, more visible pieces. There’s something moving about tattooing, for many of us — done right, it’s the ultimate exercise in trust and consent, a visceral exercise of body autonomy.

But the tattoo world had a darker side. In 2019, I noticed accusations of abuse and predatory behavior within the industry ricocheting across social media, and I stumbled into a rabbit hole. As someone who’s tattooed, I was interested; as a reporter, I was hooked. One character in particular stood out: A roving artist named Isaiah Camacho, who went by the moniker “Toothtaker,” and who was the subject of several accusations from women who said they were tattooed by him.

I work on the Metro desk for The Times, where I cover crime in New York City. There’s a cadence to that kind of beat; we keep up with everyday happenings to inform our readers of what’s going on. But the stories I love to tell are deeper yarns that come from the fringes. I love digging into strange corners that our audience might not be familiar with and introducing them to those spaces through people and high-stakes plotlines.

The story of Mr. Camacho had immediate potential. It seemed to illustrate themes of the #MeToo movement — the lack of equity, prosecutorial hurdles and the struggle of accountability in subcultures. I watched as accusations racked up against Mr. Camacho: sexual assault, violent attacks, harassment. He mocked accusers from his own Instagram page.

The narrative potential was obvious, but the reporting path was trickier. Tattooing’s #MeToo moment had largely been ignored by the mainstream press — at least in part, I was sure, because of the industry’s insularity, and the pervasive stereotypes about tattoos and people who have them. Almost all of Mr. Camacho’s accusers were nameless and fiercely protective of one another. More than that, they seemed inherently skeptical of institutions like The Times.

So, for two years, I watched the story from afar. I hadn’t found an edge into the reporting — until last summer, when Mr. Camacho arrived in Brooklyn. He was dodging a fugitive warrant in Arizona, where he had been charged with 14 violent felonies, including sexual assault.

I began reaching out to anonymous Instagram accounts that had been detailing the allegations against Mr. Camacho, asking to be put in touch with accusers, or asking popular accounts in the tattoo industry to pass my number around. There was a brief flurry of response — wary anonymous messages and a spate of phone calls, feeling out my reporting credentials.

Days later, the trail went maddeningly silent.

Faced with so little to work with, I backed off. I updated my editor periodically, but we had resigned ourselves to the hard fact that the story would be impossible to tell if none of Mr. Camacho’s accusers was willing to talk.

Then, in February, I got a message from someone connected with one of the anonymous Instagram accounts: The case against Mr. Camacho had fallen apart. Was I still interested in talking to people?

I dropped everything.

Reporters have a duty — especially to private individuals, especially if they’re alleging a crime occurred — to clearly explain what it means to talk to us. When the first of Mr. Camacho’s accusers reached out to me, I carefully crafted a paragraph, explaining how I first found the story, what “off the record” meant and what a reporting process looked like. The community around this story was tight, and I knew if I could persuade one person to talk to me, word would get around.

Within 24 hours, my inbox was exploding.

In total, I talked to more than two dozen people familiar with Mr. Camacho’s case. Reporting out accusers’ stories, I combed through hundreds of pages of documents, internal police reports, court filings and emails from prosecutors’ offices, obtained through Arizona Freedom of Information laws. We matched details from interviews with public documents and identified trails of supporting paperwork. I interviewed the prosecutor in Arizona who had dropped the charges, citing a lack of physical evidence and the time that had passed, and the prosecutors in a neighboring jurisdiction who are considering reopening the case. Eventually, some of the women we spoke with even agreed to use their names, and to be photographed. (Mr. Camacho did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him.)

I believe a critical element of building trust was the fact that I, too, am visibly tattooed, something I shared in almost all of our interviews. The photographer for the article, Christopher Lee, is also tattooed and fluent in the language of the subculture. To do this story well, we needed sources to trust that we understood their space and that we came to it without the kinds of judgment that have historically followed people, especially women, who are tattooed.

Where Mr. Camacho’s case goes from here — if anywhere — remains to be seen. But what felt important about this article is that it gave space to a community that isn’t regularly heard by a mainstream audience. Our readers, hopefully, were introduced to a world they might otherwise not be familiar with.