Tattoos are a great way to express yourself and pay homage to what’s important to you. We asked you to share your HIV and AIDS-inspired tattoos and the stories behind them.
The designs may be different, but the message is clear: You are not alone.
If you'd like to share the story behind your HIV/AIDS tattoo, email us with the subject line “My HIV/AIDS tattoo” and be sure to include: a photo of your tattoo, a short description of why you got it or why you love it, and your name.
“My name is Alon Madar and I'm an HIV activist in Israel. I got the tattoo after attending the Living 2012 conference for PLHIV/AIDS organized by GNP+. Being surrounded by others, strangers actually, who share the same passion for HIV/AIDS activism as I do, left me deeply empowered. I wanted to remember that experience as a personal milestone, so I used the Red Ribbon with a dot on top to signify the conference logo and also to signify the pronoun “I”. The letters “am” signify my initials. Even though it isn't clearly stated, the message is clear to the viewer: I am positive.” — Alon Madar
“I have a red ribbon tattoo on my forearm. I wanted it to be big and bold because I want people to see that I am living with HIV and am open about it.” — Bret Shea
“My name is Elizabeth and both of my parents have AIDS. Everyone speaks about the fact that the world is cold and cruel. I hear nothing but how harsh people are to one another and how humans are judged for being sick, for being different. I see on a daily basis how truly terrifying this virus is. But my family is that much closer because of it. Life is that much sweeter. Love is that much deeper. My tattoo represents the beauty found in a life surrounded by the virus. Thank you for allowing me to share this with you.” — Elizabeth
“I have the special design of “Jesus” on my inside left wrist. My grandfather used to make this design out of matches when I was kid. When I found out I was HIV-positive, I really leaned on my faith and belief in a greater power to help me cope with the devastating news. I found hope and grace through my faith. The tattoo reminds me daily that I am still someone who can achieve cool things in my life (even living with HIV). It’s funny, I think the tattoo artist still has no idea what it means or says.” — Josh Robbins
“I got my tattoo on my lower ankle in the year 2000, 10 years after my diagnosis. This was on a T-shirt from an HIV retreat I attended and thought it would make a great tat. Do Not Fear to Hope.” — Nancy D.
“I got this tattoo to celebrate my 10th anniversary of being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. On November 4, 2004, I was taken to the hospital with numerous opportunistic infections, and I didn't even know I was HIV-positive. My viral load was through the roof and my T-cell count was four. I almost died. Here it is all these years later, and I'm in amazing health. The tat is a quote from the first line of a poem from E. E. Cummings. I'm so grateful to be alive, and for everything Divine Wow has in store for me!” — Charles Sanchez
“This tattoo is my tribute to my brother who passed away in 2006. It is also a tribute to my mom who I lost to breast cancer in 1988. So it is a combo pink/red ribbon with angel wings and a halo.” — Shawn Schmitz
“My inspiration for my tattoo was my aunt and the end of a romantic relationship. My aunt worked for the Red Cross for many years and was my rock when I found out about my status. My ex was a paramedic and the black line marked the end of the relationship. They both played such major parts in my growth as not only a man, but an HIV activist. I love telling my story and they gave me my voice.” — Cody Hall
“The faded pink triangle is to remember all the gay men and women who have passed. The ends of the HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon are fraying to show the struggles HIV-positive people have to live with.” — Ryan Streeter
“By August 2001, HIV had been a big part of my life for a very long time (losing two partners, hospitalized numerous times, AIDS condition for over 10 years), I embraced the biohazard logo, not in shame, but because I am a long-term survivor! Inked onto my back, my HIV-inspired tattoo, which isn't immediately visible, represents two things after being HIV-positive for over 30 years: HIV isn't the first thing that people see when they see me and the worst of HIV/AIDS is behind me as I continue to move forward.” — Michael Bivens
“I got this to commemorate completing the AIDS/Lifecycle ride in California … I did the ride to give HIV the finger and to help give back for all the help I've received since my diagnosis.” — Hayes Colburn
“I got this tattoo as a remembrance piece. I personally don’t have HIV, but my uncle passed away 18 years ago from it. Not a day goes by that I don't think about him. “Never Forget” is for him. No one will ever forget his personality, character, and art. He was an amazing artist and I felt this piece that I drew would carry on many memories of him. I will never forget him!” — Hollie
“After being diagnosed 22 years ago, I actually became an extreme tattoo lover. I have both arms sleeved now and my entire chest done. All of my tattoos have very significant meaning to them, and I hold each one very close to my heart. The first photo I had done last summer after spending three months in Stanford hospital. I was feeling like, “If I could make it through this, I can persevere through anything!” The second is my Rock of Ages. I got this because I feel like this disease requires a little bit of faith to walk through it gracefully. The third is my sacred heart, which is self-explanatory.” — Elena Steeves
“I’m the program director for Francis House in Camden, New Jersey. Francis House is a ministry for all infected and affected with HIV/AIDS. The seculars and friars in my church started this great ministry 17 years ago. I designed my ink, which is the Franciscan tau (I'm a secular Franciscan). It's wrapped in the red awareness ribbon with the words: “Love Heals.” We witness healing every day with laughter, friendship, and unconditional love!” — Susan Piliro
“HIV not only changed my health status but also brought quality and blessings to my life.” — Anonymous
Getting a tattoo comes with risks, from allergic reactions, to skin infections and scarring. Although very unlikely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that it’s possible to contract a blood-borne illness such as HIV or hepatitis if the tattooist uses a contaminated instrument.
To ensure yours and others’ safety, follow these tips:
- Choose a licensed tattoo parlor and artist.
- Make sure your tetanus and hepatitis B shots are up-to-date.
- Make sure the tattoo artist has washed their hands and is wearing gloves.
- Look for a heat sterilization machine (autoclave), unused needles and inkwells, and a biohazard container.
- Ask the tattooist about their training and the sterilization process.
- If in doubt, request the parlor’s monthly test results for the autoclave.
- If you still feel uncomfortable, trust your gut and don’t go through with it.