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Refused a tattoo for being HIV-positive

Tattooed In Blood
By John Smith (pseudonym)

I was about to get a tattoo. I was excited and nervous because it had been a while. I was also worried about another thing that always looms ominously over my head. I am HIV positive. My fiancé reassured me, unknowingly, that it should be ok and I should tell the tattoo artist the day of the tattoo, because I wanted to have them be aware of my status. Thinking my status would be met with the same professionalism the healthcare field usually uses. Which is where everything went wrong. When I went into Six Feet Below Tattoo & Piercing in Clearfield, Utah on October 8th, nervous about the tattoo, and nervous about telling another person I don’t know something so personal, I was met with ignorance. In a field where blood exposure is common, universal precautions should always be in place. In this I felt like the tattoo artists at this shop dabble, because they turned me away due to my status after questioning the artist on their form. The form has a line stating “I DO NOT HAVE…. Etc.” HIV/AIDS is listed among other blood borne illnesses. The reason the artist used is this:

Our shop policy is that we do not tattoo anyone with a blood borne illness. It poses a risk of contamination to the entire shop. It doesn’t matter that you are undetectable, we cannot tattoo you because you could contaminate the entire shop.

The artist also stated that it would be next to impossible to find an artist that would tattoo me because all shops, he’s aware of, have the same policy in place. I found this to be extremely disturbing and humiliating. I was so belittled in an instant I could not think clearly or respond with anything other than “I’m sorry.” I apologized to the artist for my illness. I did. And felt so much shame that I’m surprised I did not start crying in the shop as I walked out. I have never felt like that in my life. Not even when I have been called a fag, queer, or disgusting. This hurt more than any of those and turned into anger. Anger that I want to channel into doing something to help the community learn and grow.

This calls into question the ethics of such a practice and why they are worried about contamination of an entire shop when universal precautions are implemented and followed properly? Another question is why are shops asking about something personal like this on their forms? And does someone actually have to tell them the truth?

I asked some of my friends in healthcare that have tattoos if they could ask their artist about this and was shocked that only people tattooing on their own would tattoo a person with a blood borne illness without hesitation, while many artists in shops have the same policy and have similar screening forms. An artist tattooed an HIV positive person in one shop and was reprimanded by the shop owner for doing so, because of this policy. I also found out it isn’t a law, but a personal and shop policy. There is no law in place in any state that allows this to happen and Utah does not regulate tattoo artists other than a law in place about the tattooing of minors. So I dug deeper and asked a registered nurse friend that worked as a case manager for public health for their HIV/AIDS positive clients about a lovely thing called The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Which I am fairly familiar with due to my status as an HIV positive person. Anyone else with HIV/AIDS should have a firm understanding of this Act as well.

This act is in place to protect persons with disabilities including persons with HIV/AIDS. It is illegal to discriminate at places that provide public services. Such places are not allowed to ask about a person’s status. They also cannot implement screening criteria or coercive forms either (such as the statement of I DO NOT HAVE HIV/AIDS…etc.). In the medical field they have to have a special HIPPA form to release your serostatus. Failure to comply with these accommodations can and will result in a legal case that will force the place of service to comply or stop providing services altogether at the expenses of the place of service for legal and court fees. If a shop does not believe this, it is on the ADA’s website and the shop can look it up in length and ask a lawyer about it if clarification is needed about their ignorance of federal law.

What that means is that the tattoo shop did something illegal to me. They denied me my right as a person covered under the ADA through their screening forms and through their policy. Tattoo shops cannot turn people away that have HIV/AIDS. They cannot ask about it. They cannot have screening forms or contracts that do so. The right to refuse services does not apply here because people with HIV/AIDS are a protected class and can and have taken legal action against tattoo artists already.

In 1996 a case was filed against a tattoo artist named Adam Gray at 8-Ball Tattoo in Ohio, by a person with HIV. Other counties in Ohio had adopted a similar practice on tattooing people with HIV/AIDS that allowed for the refusal of service. The artist refused service to the person with HIV citing the same reasoning that was used against me. The person was more confident in them self than I was and sued the tattoo artist. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the person with HIV because of the ADA. Which means the tattoo artists in the area have no basis for their practice of screening people and what they are doing is illegal.

My desire in writing this is to educate people about their rights and to educate tattoo artists about this illegal policy. I am arming those of us with HIV/AIDS with knowledge of our rights and to help us rise up as equal citizens under the law. We still have rights, we still deserve to be treated fairly. We are still human.

Tattoo artists should always be using universal precautions and like healthcare workers, assume everyone has some type of blood borne illness. In relation to the illnesses on the screening forms, HIV/AIDS is the illness that is the least transmittable under the circumstances. More so if the person is undetectable. This is a newer, yet vital piece of information. The providers at The University of Utah’s Clinic 1A are fully prepared to answer questions about undetectable status and multiple articles have been written about it. A better understanding of the laws, universal precautions, and less ignorance on the subject of blood borne illnesses is required in this day and age. The law is clear on this type of discrimination. It is not allowed. You will be forced to comply or stop providing services. This is an opportunity to grow and learn more about something that has a stigma surrounding, HIV/AIDS. Take the time to educate yourself and if you cannot move beyond the bias or are unwilling to educate yourself, perhaps a career change is in order.

After researching all of this subject I found out a lot about myself as a person. I started this out in anger. I did not want it to be, but it was. I also learned how lacking in regulation on tattoos we are as a state. I could not find anything on where to report the tattoo shop to other than the Better Business Bureau and thought the Health Department would at least oversee them. They do not. Something needs to be done to ensure they are receiving accurate training. Other states require their shop owners to hold a special license and are regulated by the Health Department to ensure universal precautions are followed properly. That also mean they know the laws, their staff are up-to-date on the current research of blood borne illnesses, and have sanitary working conditions. Which is why I wrote this, because it cannot stay the way it is.

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