Tattoos as personal branding is a growing trend for people living with HIV who want to communicate their status, as seen in the above video of Michael Lee Howard:
It's a branding of who I am, and it's a branding of being comfortable with that, being comfortable with who I am and particularly the ribbon because after five years I've gone through a huge amount of stuff to get to where I'm at now.
Howard is tattooed with a biohazard symbol on his right arm and a radiation symbol on his left. The origin of HIV-related tattoos is unclear, but the biohazard symbol is a clear sign "to let other men know that they're HIV-positive so that they don't have to come out and say it… a "secret identification code," said David Dempsey, clinical director at the Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House in Chicago and The Harbor in Waukegan, Illinois, transitional living facilities for HIV-positive people in drug and alcohol recovery.
Although new HIV cases have remained stable in the general population, new infections rose among young, black gay and bisexual men between 2006 to 2009, and men having sex with men accounted for 61%, or 29,300, new HIV infections in 2009, federal health officials said last week.
As a measure of societal progress since the 1980’s when William F. Buckley Jr. 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," today’s bearers of HIV-related tattoos wear them as symbols of survival and rebirth. Diagnosed in 2005, Howard began researching tattoos and found the biohazard symbol popular with HIV positive people:
In the early days I think the biohazard symbol meant more that you're tainted with something, you're making it known that you are HIV positive. But I think now that HIV is becoming more manageable, it's becoming something that people are learning that it's something you can live with, that now it's being seen more as an acceptance and it's more seen as a forward movement as opposed to a negative movement.
Howard says the radiation sign was inspired by comic books and superheroes that get radiated and life "starts from scratch."
A second coming out for him, Howard uses the tattoos to spark conversation about HIV, and as a reminder of where his life has brought him. "When I look down at my wrists I see part of my past and part of my future."