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His tattoo, a biohazard symbol with the Celtic motif of a crown of thorns circling around it, means he's winning the fight against this disease. You're a champion, you are a survivor, and that's the biggest part of the tattoo," Conley said.
Identification and awareness The origins of HIV-related tattoos are murky, but the biohazard symbol is recognized in connection with HIV among many gay men, said David Dempsey, clinical director at the Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House in Chicago and The Harbor in Waukegan, Illinois, both transitional living facilities for HIV-positive individuals recovering from alcohol and substance dependence.
For those with HIV, seeing someone else with a biohazard symbol is a sign this is another person living with the disease who might provide support, Conley said, like a "secret identification code." There are less cryptic HIV tattoos, too.
Dempsey has a red AIDS ribbon tattoo on his chest, which he chose even before he became HIV-positive (the organization Visual AIDS created the ribbon symbol in 1991).
Another theory is that certain ACT UP activists sported biohazard tattoos in their massive demonstrations in the late '80s and early '90s, but founder Larry Kramer said he hasn't heard of these tattoos or of the organization's participation in the practice.
Tattooing HIV-related symbols has been going on at least since Nick Colella started at Chicago Tattooing and Piercing Company in 1994.
He wrote in The New York Times, "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." Some HIV-positive individuals may have gotten tattoos in resistance to Buckley's article, said Richard Sawdon Smith, professor of photography and AIDS cultures at London South Bank University in the United Kingdom, who has been HIV-positive since 1994.
This is not an oft-cited reason among people with tattoos today, although many of the people who got HIV in the '80s and may have gotten tattoos then have since died.
Colella, like other tattoo artists, sterilizes his equipment and throws used needles away in biohazard-labeled containers so diseases transmitted through blood, including HIV, do not spread from person to person.
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