I got turned away from a tattooist because I was living with HIV - here's why I support NAT.
Last week, we joined forces with the British HIV Association, the British Association on Sexual Health and HIV, HIV Scotland and Terrence Higgins Trust to publish a consensus statement on HIV and tattooing, piercing and other cosmetic treatments. This statement was a response to reports of discrimination against people with HIV from some providers of cosmetic treatments and tattooing. Nathan* was one of those people and shares his experience with us here.
“I don’t feel comfortable doing the tattoo… it only takes one needle prick!” That’s what I was told after disclosing I have HIV to a tattooist. “No offence intended.” Well it was too late as discrimination isn’t about what’s intended, it’s about what happens. And he was treating me differently due to HIV. I’d had positive experiences of disclosure and begun to think the stigma was in my head. I also assumed people working with blood each day would have up-to-date training. But my fears were realised when he cancelled my appointment.
I’d wanted the tattoo for years but put it off due to fear of having to disclose HIV. I worried the incident would reinforce negative feelings and expectations of rejection I’d been trying to overcome. I was shocked and angered by how I was treated. And I felt completely isolated.
I knew the law had been broken but, as it was a civil matter, I didn’t know who to turn to. I contacted the Local Authority’s licensing team who signposted me to the Equality Advisory and Support Service. They advised making a formal complaint in writing to establish a case for direct discrimination. I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of a Court case. And the studio owner’s reply caused further offence when stating it was the tattooist’s personal choice to decline the work and clumsily comparing the situation to persons under influence of drugs or alcohol. They also argued that this was not discrimination as no offence had been intended.
I decided to contact NAT to see if there were other options. I felt so relieved to be put in touch with someone who not only listened, but offered to support me. I no longer felt alone. They empowered me with knowledge. For instance, they clarified that I didn’t have to disclose HIV as it is the tattooist’s responsibility to use universal precautions to manage the same risks present with any client who may be undiagnosed. They also offered to write to the Local Authority about prior work with tattooists and supply a template letter about the issue that could be distributed to all tattooists in their area, which the Local Authority sent out.
I’ve since had a positive experience at a London studio. Again, I chose to disclose HIV but this time as I wanted to go somewhere I felt welcome and confident in their craft. I was thrilled when the receptionist reassured me HIV was not a barrier to getting a tattoo as they follow universal precautions. I had a consultation with the tattooist who never mentioned the condition and focused on the work. I was asked to complete a health questionnaire but, as this studio knew blood-borne viruses are risk-managed by precautions, they only asked about conditions where an unmanaged risk existed, such as epilepsy and haemophilia.
I think a consensus statement will help insomuch as it’s a single point of reference for agencies, tattooists and clients to access information. But I would also like to see information and training about HIV and universal precautions embedded into the licensing process of tattooists by local authorities – currently there is no such requirement. Hopefully this statement will form a first step towards achieving change and ensuring there is consistent practice so that others living with HIV avoid experiences like mine.
*Not his real name.