Needling HIV

AIDS activists go to great lengths to assure privacy and confidentiality forthose who are HIV-positive. Now, some AIDS patients are announcing their status in a very personal and permanent way: a tattoo.

Such markings range from the ambiguous (the symbol for biohazardous waste; the word "POZ") to the explicit ("HIV POSITIVE" in inch-high letters). But each is an attempt to bring AIDS out into the open, says Dan Brouwer, an instructor of communications at Loyola University, whose study of such symbols appears in the journal Text and Performance.

He found that some tattoo wearers wanted to bolster awareness of AIDS and felt that a tattoo would have more impact than the now-familiar red ribbon. Others intended to do away with the shame and secrecy that often accompanies an AIDS diagnosis. Still others wanted to challenge the public's ideas about health and illness, especially at a time when protease inhibitors and other treatments have made living with AIDS a reality.

Brouwer's subjects also mentioned more personal reasons for getting an AIDS tattoo. It makes a preemptive strike against social rejection, for example, disclosing the wearer's HIV status to potential partners up front and screening out those who might be scared off by the illness. The tattoos may also signal a commitment to safe sex practices, since their wearers have no choice but to inform sexual partners of their infection.

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PHOTO (COLOR): Brouwer's subjects also mentioned more personal reasons for getting an AIDS tattoo.

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