Nothing fires up a conversation like asking a group of HIV-positive people how they feel about poz tattoos. Bottom line, you either love 'em or hate 'em. Aaron Lamout, who is currently planning for his own tattoo, argues that "willingly branding yourself, I feel, takes away any power others have of causing harm. You wear your status proudly for all the world to see. It might, in it's own small way, help spread awareness. Once seen it cannot be unseen. By putting it in the public eye it forces people to talk about it."
Others feel like the tattoo both communicates to their partners and the wider world, but also helps them feel safe. Hawaiian Sean Hannah says
he got a tattoo on the one-year anniversary of learning he was HIV-positive. "It protects me well," he says, "and warns others." While some say that warning is stigmatizing, and these tattoos mark people who have HIV like biohazards or radioactive waste. Mikey Barnum posted on the HIV Plus Facebook page, "The very idea of a biohazard tattoo to differentiate poz people from those who are not is offensive. I am not a biohazard. In fact, I'm less of a biohazard than some random person coughing or sneezing without covering!"
So we asked our readers to send us their thoughts on — and their photos of — tattoos that symbolize their positive status. Here are a few of the favorites.
"I got this tattoo on my right forearm a couple months after I was diagnosed in 2012," says Joshua. "It is two swallows carrying the HIV ribbon. I got this because swallows symbolize coming home from a journey. I wanted it to represent my daily struggle with HIV and one day hopefully the end of my journey, the day we all hope for — a cure. The ribbon represents all that did not make it through their journey and throughout the years have died from AIDS-related Illnesses. I had it purposely put on my right fore arm so it would be a visible tattoo that people can see. I see no shame in being HIV positive. I love my tattoo, the meaning behind it, and it has actually become a conversation starter many times already to give me a chance to educate people about HIV. HIV does not and will never define me. I am more than HIV, I am a person."
Chad says, "This isn't the best photo unfortunately. However it has real meaning to me. I was diagnosed in 2009 and, for me, I decided the only way to deal with it was to be 100% open about my status. That opened the door to being an advocate for other people. I decided to get this tattoo as a way to be more visible and open up the conversation and hopefully dispell stigma at the same time."
Rob says, "My tattoo is a simple one — a small plus sign on my left pec, shaded blue to black — but its simplicity is only superficial. After I was diagnosed as HIV+ in June of 2010, I thought about getting something to symbolize my status. I knew that I needed to be comfortable in my skin before I went inking it up and that, at the time, I wasn’t ready. After two and a half years and a lot of personal growth, I was ready to publically announce that I’m HIV+."
He admits that a lot of things had coalesced into “going public” with his status. "First, I had to decide that I didn’t care who knew my status and that there was no one from whom I wanted to hide it. Second, I had to decide that this was a one-way process – that I would never hide my status again. Once I’d made those decisions, it was easy to decide to make a public “Coming Out, Take Two” post on Facebook and to get a tattoo a few days later. "
Kenn, Rob's tattoo artist, was thrilled when he heard that he had a virgin, that he would get to give Rob his first ink. "It’s not that I had anything against tattoos or that I hadn’t considered getting one earlier," Rob says. "I just could never think of a design I’d want on me for a year, let alone the rest of my life. Unlike musical tastes or hobbies, I knew that I’ll always be HIV+. Even if a cure is found in my lifetime, having been positive has shaped my life in a permanent way. Going public with my status was a terrifying relief. I’m no longer stuck trying to find the right situation or conversational segue to tell someone I’m HIV+. I don’t have to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t know. I don’t have to answer the same questions all the time; I just give people the link instead. Most rewardingly, I’ve stripped HIV of some of its last power over me. I’ve made it clear to the world that I’m not ashamed of my status and that I feel no need to hide it. I’m not someone to be whispered about or pitied."
Rob says that "having worked in research labs — where biohazard signs are everywhere — the suggestion that the biohazard symbol is stigmatizing is as absurd as saying that a traffic sign tattoo is stigmatizing. Truth be told, I was debating getting a biohazard tattoo for a while. After a lively discussion with fellow HIV advocates, I came to see how someone who has only seen the symbol above the words 'Infectious Waste' could feel that the tattoo was stigmatizing. In the end, we agreed to disagree and I moved on to other design ideas and landed on the plus sign."
"The tattoo on my chest is the Angel of Bethesda," says James. "It was inspired by Tony Kushner's Angels In America and by the statue in Central Park. As the story goes, when the Angel of Bethesda comes down to earth, a fountain will appear where her foot touches the ground which will cure all ills. I had it over my chest because due to a number of operations when I was younger, my chest is the weakest part of my body. On top of tha,t my chest houses my heart which has had its moments of fragility. I like having the piece as a reminder of my own frailty yet also as armour against harm, as a nod to my HIV status, and as a salute to what may be possible, given time."
Jay says, "I got this tattoo for two reasons. I saw a tattoo of a hazard symbol and decided it was time to own my HIV, so I took the tattoo I saw and added my own twist by adding the 'P' and 'Z' within the symbol. First reason and most important was, the day I got it was the day I finally faced reality and owned my disease. Until that day, I refused to own the disease or the consequences of my past actions which lead me down this road. Secondly, I wanted a reminder to myself and any of my future sexual partner that I was HIV positive. I now own my status, admit to and own my poor decisions in the past. I am not afraid, scared, or ashamed now. It's been seven years now and I am stronger now than before I was diagnosed. I guess in an odd way, HIV has made me a better and stronger person."
"I was diagnosed with AIDS on August 11, 2004," Michael recalls. "In 2006, I disclosed this information to my boss. He was a trusted mentor and the first person of any significance in my life that I had told. Approximately a year later in 2007, there were rumors circulating around work that I was HIV-positive. My former boss had inadvertently confirmed my status to another employee while at a bar during off hours. I was devastated, something I had kept so tight to my chest was now out in the open. After allowing myself a pity party lasting about a week, I decided to take control of the situation. I checked with human resources and sent an email disclosing my status to the entire sales organization at my company. I used it as an effort to raise funds for the United Way. I hit send, went to the local tattoo parlor and created the tattoo."
Michael says this tattoo is "my diagnosis date, the first three words of my personal mission statement, Heal The World, and the red ribbon. I placed it on my left forearm as a constant reminder of what I had been through, and to never, ever allow myself to become a victim of the stigma. My closest friends will tell you, it is a badge of honor, and one I wear proudly."
"I am so happy to submit a picture of my HIV tattoo," says Sven. "It is a plain old plus sign, on my leg, in blue, because it’s my favorite color.
Why a plus sign? Because I was troubled by the toxic sign; it made me feel ashamed, an outcast. I am none of that. I am not toxic, I am not a biohazard. In fact, HIV has proven to be an utterly positive experience in life. It took me off the path I was on and firmly placed me on the path I was supposed to be on. The things I have in life today, the friends I have today, the love I experience today, everything is because and due to HIV. I don’t regret being HIV-positive for anything. I am proud of it."
"I added the biohazard design and some modifications to the tribal design I already had on my upper back shortly after I learned I was HIV positive," says Darrell.
"I got my mother's initials tattooed on my left wrist a few years after she passed away," says Brad, founder and creative director of Hivster.com. "After my positive diagnosis, in 2009, I knew I wanted to do something similar. I decided that on my right wrist I would get the outline of a plus sign. The permanent marking reflects the seriousness of this illness I'll have the rest of my life, but I remember that all the possibilities I had before are still accessible and that life can and will be still be full."
His tattoo, says Keoni, has a couple of meanings. "The first reason is obvious; it basically says that I'm tainted. Sometimes I feel that having this disease makes me useless," Keoni admits. "That I can't love, have sex, or express feeling towards another human being and even those feelings can't be reciprocated because I am positive. The other meaning is the poison that my last boyfriend inflicted on me. Not literally but it was a reminder of the scars he left me."
"This I got to remind myself," says David of his tattoo. "Also when I get naked, they ask what does it mean, which forces me to explain. Plus I have something to talk about before sex. It just represents being healthy and poz."
"I am a bit of an extrovert and wondered how I could get people to be open about discussing HIV and AIDS," says Cindy. "I decided after my bout of cancer and losing my hair that I didn’t look too shabby with a bald head. And as my friend said, ‘You have such a nice round head’ so I decided to use it to get dialogue going in and around my community and hopefully further in the South African sector. It is reasonably strange for a Caucasian women to be open about her HIV status and I have hopefully created a lot of awareness in my own little way."
Cindy, an author, activist, and speaker, says her henna tattoos are also "a passive aggressive way of creating dialogue and awareness from young to old."