Blood And Ink: HIV And Tattooing

Published 08, Jul, 2011

Michael Burtch: “If there is one thing I hate, it’s people wearing Ed Hardy Wear with no visible tattoos. And if there is one question I’ve come to loath, it’s “What do your tattoos mean?””

It’s usually the sign that the person who is asking is one of the 76% of Canadian’s who are not tattooed. A cultural tourist. And yet, I’ve started to ask my poz friends with tattoos a similar question. What does it mean that the HIV+ are over represented in tattoo culture?

For many, the tattoo is a metaphor of difference, and history and popular culture have long associated  the tattoo with danger, two concepts familiar to any HIV+ person.  The permanence of tattoos and the permanence of HIV are certainly parallel. Could these shared characteristics be at the core of why HIV+ people are participating in tattoo culture?  My own experiences as an HIV+ person are certainly reflected in the narrative of some of my tattoos, and my first tattoo did come about after having tested positive. Getting tattooed back then was about cementing and broadcasting my own outsider status within my queer community, and less about the art.     

Local business owner Tim Fillion believes that the prevalence of tattoos among his HIV+ peers is about “recognizing that things can change, while tattoos do not” and is directly related to mortality.  My friend Garrett Rubin has a tattoo of the AIDS ribbon on his upper right arm, and has been HIV+ for over 3 years but sees no connection (besides the obvious) between being tattooed and having HIV “unless you’re in jail.”


In Canada, HIV is seven times more common in penitentiaries then in the general population. Despite this alarming statistic, access to clean needles for the purpose of tattooing was removed by the Conservative Government in 2009.  However, the connection between HIV and prison is only a small part of the story.  

I think the real reason HIV+ people are over represented in tattoo culture is connected to one of the major motivations of becoming tattooed in the first place: the commemoration of a life event or journey. HIV is definitely a game changer, and as a result, many of us are seeking help in adjusting to our new realities. While it may have sounded absurd 40 years ago to suggest that getting tattooed was about self help and self care, tattooing today for many people is about working out personal and emotional issues on their bodies.

The scars of HIV can be very deep; why not cover them up with something beautiful?

Tattoo, Ink, Ed Hardy, HIV