Inked With Integrity

    Tattoo artists aren’t really known for having gentle demeanors. Many of the earlier ones I worked with seemed to have the personalities of sandpaper… that a dog shit on… and then someone set on fire.  Each time I had an idea for new ink, I dreaded having to find another artist in fear that their brashness would forever ruin my association with that piece.

    So as you can imagine, once I got my HIV diagnosis, my dread doubled.  This was a decade ago when no one really talked about HIV.  If my gay cohorts couldn’t even stay informed, then how in the hell would these guys know anything?  I just knew that I wouldn’t get a whole lot of empathy and understanding from these folks.  And I knew that no artists would be willing to work on me anymore.

    As fortune would have it, I chatted online with a gay guy who worked as a receptionist in a shop. He assured me that at his location, no artist would reject me for having HIV and that I should come in to get my latest work done there. This felt safe.  I could “pre-assure” my non-rejection. So I took him up on his offer.

    Sure enough, the artist I worked with didn’t have a problem with my status.  Although he didn’t seem to have much to say about anything really. But the place seemed dirty and gross. The last thing I needed was a heaping dose of Hep C. And after $700, I wasn’t all that happy with his work. It pained me to say it, but I would've just preferred the work of the dog-shit-sandpaper guys from before.  

Photo by  Ash Lee

Photo by Ash Lee

    My fear clearly held me back from more quality work. Since tattoos are something you have permanently scarred into your body for the rest of your life, I didn’t want to make that mistake again. Thus I gave up my emotional assurance and went back to seeking out randos at more reputable shops with higher-rated artists.  I’d just have to face the risk of rejection.

    I chose a local Denver shop called Bound By Design.  When I went there with a friend to get his ink once, I flipped through the artists’ books and loved all their work.  The place seemed so clean. I felt assured that the only color I’d be getting from this place would be from ink (and not the jaundice).  

    I went in not quite sure how to bring up my status.  The receptionist matched me up with an artist so quickly that before I knew it, I was suddenly filling out paperwork with him instead of her.  I began plugging in my initials to each section, verifying certain agreements before I could get tattooed by the guy. About half way down, there it was: a section that asked, point-blank, to acknowledge that I didn’t have any communicable diseases such HIV or Hepatitis C.

    I took a deep breath. “I can’t initial this one,” I told the artist. “I am HIV positive.”

    “Get the fuck out of my booth!” he did not say like I had originally imagined.  Instead, he merely shrugged and actually said “That’s fine. Don’t worry about that one. Just finish the rest and sign it and we will get started.”

    Even though things continued this way with each artist, I still anticipated that “Pretty Woman moment” where a store would refuse me based on their ignorant prejudices. One day I would make my dramatic return to this shop, gloriously tattooed, and tell them what a big, “BIG!” mistake they had made. But no such fantasy was necessary — everyone had been totally respectful.

    Eventually I asked an artist why they were all being so nonchalant about it. Why wasn’t it the big deal I had in my head?

    “We take universal precautions,” he said. “We treat every person as if they did have such a disease anyway. That’s why we only use sterile equipment.”

    It was so untheatrical - almost disappointing really.

    “Besides,” he added. “You wouldn’t want to go to some douchebag shop that wouldn’t work on you for that! It would make me question their practices!”

    He made a good point. An artist’s rejection could actually be my saving grace. A shop that doesn’t know how to soundly approach safety would be questionable. Plus, there’s nothing worse than getting an exciting tattoo by a complete jerk.  I decided he’d be my permanent artist from then on.

Photo by  Ash Lee

Photo by Ash Lee

    Unfortunately a few inks later, I had a tattoo emergency and my guy was completely booked.  He recommended another shop up the block.  I went in expecting to explain myself once I had to initial that section.  But the paperwork didn’t even ask about HIV.  I decided to tell the artist anyway. Again, he had no problems.

    But midway through the tattoo, he stopped.  “I just wanted to say thank you,” he said. “That’s really cool that you told me about your HIV. Even though it doesn’t really matter, most people aren’t that honest and forthcoming.”

    As he resumed pulsating that painful needle deep into my flesh, I felt proud of myself. In that moment, I discovered a sense of integrity by being upfront even when I didn’t have to be. I also discovered that tattoo artists can often have the personalities of puppy dogs… even if they wear spiked collars. 


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