OPINION: Refusing to tattoo someone who is HIV+ is simply prejudice

Friday, 20 September 2019 11:12 GMT

Tattoo tools and ink are seen on a tray during the annual Israel Tattoo Convention in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The lack of awareness and knowledge of HIV within the tattoo and body modification industries is symptomatic of the lack of about understanding about the virus across society

Dominique Holmes is a tattooist, artist and activist                                   

When Dan* first contacted me in 2014 to discuss booking in for a tattoo, he told me he was living with HIV and wanted to check I’d be happy to tattoo him before seeing me for a consultation. His need to share this personal information should have surprised me. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Despite it being illegal to discriminate against people living with HIV, over the years I’ve witnessed tattooists refuse to work on people living with HIV. Sometimes saying no outright; sometimes making up an excuse or passing them to someone else. 

The lack of awareness and knowledge of HIV within the tattoo and body modification industries is symptomatic of the lack of about understanding about the virus across society. The two highly-publicised incidents of individuals living with HIV being turned away from studios in London and Bolton over the last couple of years highlight the need for greater education and information.

No one should face this sort of discrimination due to outdated and invalidated fears of getting HIV if they tattoo or pierce a person living with the virus.

Many years ago, in my early days of tattooing, I attended a health and safety conference. One of the first questions we were asked was, “Who would tattoo an individual living with HIV or hepatitis and, if so, what would you do differently?” 

In a room of more than 20 tattooists and body piercers, only I and one other colleague raised our hands.

To a sea of shocked faces, we divulged we’d do nothing differently because we trusted our working method and our cleaning and safety procedures. We said the routines we all had, the equipment we all used, and the preventative measures we took to ensure no risk of cross-contamination were already in place because we had to assume anyone sitting in the chair opposite could have a blood borne virus.

Whether they’d told us so or not.

Not to mention that if the individual was aware of their HIV status and took effective medication, they cannot pass it on – even if they have sex without condoms.

The response from many in the room was that we were stupid to be “risking our health”, as the majority of our peers refused to listen to or accept our logical discourse.

Another client of mine once told me they lied about having HIV on tattoo consent forms because they feared being turned away from tattoo studios if they were honest. They were almost certainly not the only person to do this, including people whose HIV has not been undiagnosed. This is why my industry has strict health and safety methods in place.

The argument I hear is that as tattooists we shouldn’t have to tattoo someone we don’t want to. I agree. But this should only apply to clients who are rude, drunk, disrespectful and threatening, and only on a case-by-case basis.

Refusing to tattoo an individual living with HIV is discrimination, pure and simple.

We understand refusing service to an individual based on their sexuality, gender or race is abhorrent and illegal behaviour. It’s beyond time the tattooing and body modification industries acknowledge and ensure everyone knows that discrimination based on HIV – which is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act – is just as serious and illegal.

When I began thinking about writing this piece, I looked at the consent forms I hand out to my clients before tattooing them. I’ve used the same template for years and was shocked that my forms require people to disclose if they are living with HIV. Needless to say, I have got new forms printed which no longer ask this evasive and illegal question.

A person living with HIV is welcome to be tattooed in my studio without having to share their status. I trust in my practice and my methods. I know – like any other professional tattooists should too – that I’m am not going to contract the virus through tattooing them.

Most importantly, I want to ensure anyone who happens to be living with HIV can come to be tattooed by and not feel stigmatised or treated differently because of their status.

*Not his real name



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