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Tattooing With HIV: A Slap in the Face

By Brian Ledford

April 14, 2014

Yesterday, I contacted a local tattoo parlor about possibly getting some work done. I have 3 tattoos and 3 piercings. I not only want some new work, but I also want to get some touch-ups on a few of the ones I have. Yes, tattoos and piercings are addictive and once you get one, you always want another.

I have not gotten a tattoo since my HIV diagnosis so I was not really sure of how to handle the situation. Part of me waited this long because I was afraid of rejection and how it might impact me. I know plenty of people who have gotten them while HIV-positive, but I just didn't know the exact procedures that needed to be followed. I figured now was a good time due to the fact that I now have an undetectable viral load and that maybe a tattoo would not be such a shock to my system. I contacted the parlor via email and asked what their shop rates were and if they had a policy against tattooing people with HIV. I felt that it was better to be upfront about it and let them know before I just went into the shop. A part of me regrets ever asking now, but I am always honest about my diagnosis, especially when there is a higher risk involved. I did get a reply back that was short and simple. They said, "No we will not. Thanks for asking and we appreciate your concern for the well being of our artists and customers."

This just kind of hit me the wrong way and at the time really pissed me off. This incident is the first time I have felt discrimination based on my HIV status in a very long time. I had almost forgotten what it felt like. I wanted to put them on blast and "educate" them but then I figured it would do no good. Even if I did send them a list of facts and educational material they would probably still say no, and if they did change their minds and say yes, I was sure as hell not going to let them do any work on me after all of this.

This whole incident is just a reminder of how far we still have to go in fighting the stigmas that are related to HIV, especially here in the South, where so many are still uneducated about it. Yes, there are plenty of other tattoo parlors in the area that I could contact and I am sure I can find a good artist that is willing to do the work.

I do believe I read somewhere last night while searching laws against refusal of service that the CDC has zero reported cases of an HIV transmission between a customer and a tattoo artist. I am not sure if this is fact or not and I tried to find the source again today but could not. I also read that a tattoo artist can refuse service to anyone for just about any reason, which could mean they don't like the way you look or smell.

All tattoo artists must take universal precautions and treat each customer as if they do have HIV or some other bloodborne disease. If a parlor and artist are taking the right precautions (new needles, sterilized equipment, and gloves) then there is very little chance of transmission. In most states, a tattoo artist must demonstrate knowledge of proper safety procedures before they can even get their license.

I guess the question comes down to disclosure. Are you required by law to inform a tattoo artist of your HIV status? I think it is a good idea, that way the artist not only makes sure they take the proper steps to protect themselves, but it also helps to protect you as well. Even if not required by law I think you should tell them. If there was some freak accident and the artist was pricked with the needle, you do not want to face criminal charges or be sued for not disclosing. I guess it really has to do with the local laws in your area.

All of this was just a slap in the face to me and was kind of a wake-up call. Just because I am comfortable now with my status and educated on the subject, it doesn't mean that everyone else is. I am still on the hunt for a good artist who is willing to do the work and I will always be upfront about it.




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