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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

The Biohazard Tattoo & HIV Stigma


A Video Blog

By Justin B. Terry-Smith

April 25, 2013

The Biohazard Tattoo & HIV Stigma.

Last week I thought long and hard about the reason why someone would get a bio-hazard tattoo on their body, and then I asked myself why I would get one. I decided I would get a Biohazard tattoo not because I wanted to feel better about myself being HIV positive, but it was because I felt for the people that couldn't be open about their status. There are many reasons why a person cannot be open about their status: it could be because of their family, friends, partner/s, fear of persecution, death, etc. But a lot of these reasons come from stigma. Stigma of how one is treated when being open about their HIV status is very much alive and well. I got this tattoo for those mentioned above to help fight against HIV stigma.

I'm not proud to be HIV positive, but I'm proud that I can be open about my status and stand up to the faces of adversity. This is my part that I can do and I'm not ashamed that I did it. There are many activists that do not like the idea of this tattoo and that is okay, but know that I did this not for myself but for others who cannot be open about their HIV status. Also I feel that doing this does open up the room for discussion. From what I hear from others that have this very tattoo representing their HIV positive status, it actually opens up people to dialog about HIV and about their own status. I also feel that people asking questions about HIV will better help with education. I wear the tattoo but the tattoo does not wear me.

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See Also
What Does HIV/AIDS Stigma Look Like in Your Life?
More on Stigma and HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Connor (Atlanta, GA) Mon., May. 13, 2013 at 10:39 am EDT
I feel the biohazard tattoo takes us back to days of less tolerance. By definition the symbol tells people to "stay away or be harmed." That message contributes to the stigma of the disease that is unwarranted in 2013. If you want to brand yourself why not with a HIV marking that's more hopeful and less divisive?

I think most HIV+ guys want the tattoo b/c they think it's hot to flaunt at the bathhouse.
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Comment by: Justin B Terry-smith (Laurel, MD) Mon., May. 20, 2013 at 1:21 pm EDT
Connor I don't go to bathhouses but thank you for the comment lol
Comment by: Justin Terry-Smith (Laurel, MD) Mon., May. 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm EDT
The biohazard is a choice that I made to open up lines of communications. It was meant in the gay community as a symbol to say yes I have this and I know my status. I just don't need another red ribbon even though I will continue to wear it as a symbol of awareness. If you look at it from a negative stand point then it will be negative. But if you look at it as a personal choice then it will be just that, especially to the person who wears it


Comment by: Felix (London, UK) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 10:27 am EDT
I agree with what you say about stigma, totally.
But I think the biohazard symbol is not ideal at all. I mean, it evokes all the wrong connotations: inescapable danger, unavoidable infection, immediate threat of death, disease, a place where-you-don't-want-to-be.
I have other friends who chose to have the symbol as a tattoo, too, and many much more visible than yours (elbow, arm, wrist), and I respect their choice to have it, but I think there are many different ways to stimulate discussion, ways that allow you to get off on a different foot.
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Comment by: Justin (Laurel, MD) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm EDT
The biohazard is a choice that I made to open up line of communications. It was meant in the gay community aas a symbol to say yes I have this and I know my status. I just don't need another red ribbon even though I will continue to wear it as a symbol of awareness. If you look at it from a negative stand point than it will be negative. But if you look at it as a personal choice than it will be just that, especially to the person who wears it


Comment by: Evan (Los Angeles) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 2:51 am EDT
Hey Justin,
Great video! Have a look at my blohazard tattoo blog on positive lite, I think we are both thinking along the very same lines which is great to hear!
Cheers,
Evan
http://positivelite.com/component/zoo/item/the-biohazard-blog-part-one-germ-of-an-idea
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Comment by: Anonymous Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm EDT
Hey Evan Thanks for the comment. I do find that disclosing early to a sexual partner is better than later. I disclose because its my choice but I truly do think its a choice to disclose at work. I'm glad that one does not have to disclose at work but I always have even if everyone around might feel uncomfortable then think it's not my problem its theirs.


Comment by: Gary H (Philadelphia, PA) Thu., May. 9, 2013 at 7:46 pm EDT
Hi Justin, what a great topic to bring up as it has many opinions within our community about what it represents. I admire you for the reason you got the tattoo. I believe in speaking for others who can not speak for themselves as I often do myself. I often thought about getting a biohazard tattoo, but thought is was passe since the trend started so many years ago. A lot of people think it is a crime to get the tattoo as they interpret it to mean that we are toxic waste. I never thought that and that is their sword to carry. After seeing this, I think I will get this tattoo, for the exact reasons you did. So you have inspired at least one other person; me! Thank you for giving this topic a real positive side!
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Comment by: Justin B Terry-Smith (Laurel, MD) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm EDT
Thank you Gary how are you? Thank you so much for saying this. I wish others would read what you have written :-)


Comment by: Hayden Croyaxjm (Paris, France) Thu., May. 9, 2013 at 6:09 pm EDT
There's a significant link between the biohazard symbol and unprotected sex - In Europe the Biohazard Club nights are bb parties for hiv-positive men only and this symbol is often taken on by members of gay bbbsex dating sites and online groups on social networking sites like Facebook. Are you not finding that since having the tattoo, that sexual partners or anyone that sees u topless assume instantly play without condoms. Taking it further, a logical conclusion may be that you have gone to some lengths and have in a way dedicated yourself to this symbol, so therefore you might assume that you do not practice safe sex at all! Sorry, I'm not being negative about your decidiob , in fact I would like to get one done over my nipple. I just wonder if this symbol, meaning lots of things to different ppl and being more provocative to certain sections of the population than others, whether the intent of getting it done is closest to provocation to stand out and cause conversation, to identify for purposes of solidarity (disturbingly, the closest example I can think of in tattoos is a Nazi symbol, team sport logos, army brigade/troop coat if arms etc), or maybe for clarification of sexual practices or of course, they could just think that it's a "pretty tribal symbol" as one person described it when i showed them the symbol. My worry is that there are more negative connotations than positive (Ironically!) so to me getting the tattoo is ultimately part of a self destructive side in me, a part of me that seeks to almost punish myself for being positive through branding, taking the symbol to mean literally to mean: Beware: I am a biohazard so stay clear or else be subjected to a "Level 2 infection capable of causing permanent disability or life threatening or fatal disease when exposure occurs". Maybe I'm thinking about this too much but I do, having said all the above still have a fascination with this tattoo and am thinking about getting one soon...
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Comment by: Justin Terry-Smith (Laurel, MD) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm EDT
Hayden,
Yes this may be true in France but not here. I'm married btw and I've not been approashed to have bb sex, except for guys in Europe but like i said I don't think that guys in the U.S. are too hung up on it. Let them assume its the fact that this was a personal statement that I made to myself and not a symbol for society to judge me on. I don't think in that sort of a mind frame that but this is for my mentality to wrap its head around not anyone else and I do not practice bareback sex just a FYI.

One on your nipple would look awesome.

As you said the symbol means a lot of different things to a lot of different people BUT it is what you take from it that means all the difference. I would not consider compare this symbol in anyway to the HOLOCAUST that too me is taking it too far especially having the blood I have from my ancestors who were not only Africans but jews as well. If that is the mentality that someone wants to stay away from me because of a tattoo so be it. But like I said before it is up to the person who has the tatoo and how they want to interpret it for themselves. this is really not up to anyone else and doesn't really warrant any to stay away from me. But it has opened up a lot of questions. Did you read the article at all on how this came about?


Comment by: Monique (Philadelphia) Thu., May. 9, 2013 at 3:10 pm EDT
I love your YouTube videos. They're informative, well thought out, and on target.
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Comment by: Justin Terry-smith (Laurel, MD) Fri., May. 10, 2013 at 2:31 pm EDT
Thank you monique for watching babes :-) I want to make sure that people understand that this is a tattoo that is personal and says to me that I'm proud of knowing my status not proud having HIV


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VIDEO BLOG:
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Justin B. Terry-Smith

Justin B. Terry-Smith

Justin B. Terry-Smith may be one of the most public African Americans living with HIV: He has his own blog and Web site, and he's even on YouTube. And who can blame him? Only 30, he already has an incredible story to tell. Justin admits he used to live "a very dangerous life," but since his diagnosis three years ago, the former heavy drinker and drug user has turned his life around.
Photo credit: Don Harris


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