Tattoos: A journey of HIV acceptance [VIDEO]

Published: August 10, 2011

Portland, Oregon (CNN) — As he puts a straw in his fruit smoothie, Michael Lee Howard accidentally knocks over the cup, spilling the seaweed-colored liquid. "Well, it happens," he says. As he collects the smoothie overflow in the plastic lid, he exposes the tattoos on his wrists: a biohazard symbol on the right and a radiation symbol on the left.

Howard might not have come across as such a calm person in late 2005, when he found out he was HIV-positive. After his diagnosis, he felt "dirty" in his own skin, and feared infecting others if he so much as cut his hand. Getting the wrist tattoos helped him in his journey toward self-acceptance.

"It’s a branding of who I am, and it’s a branding of being comfortable with that, being comfortable with who I am," said Howard, 37, who lives in Portland, Oregon.

Howard is one of many people living with HIV who have chosen to get tattoos to represent living with the disease. They say these tattoos help start conversations, reduce stigma and serve as reminders of how living with HIV has changed their lives.

Tattoos like Howard’s biohazard symbol are especially common in men who have sex with men, the subpopulation that bears the highest burden of new HIV infections in the United States. Men who have sex with men accounted for 61%, or 29,300, new HIV infections in 2009, federal health officials said last week. And although the number of new HIV cases has remained stable in the general population, new infections rose among young, black gay and bisexual men from 2006 to 2009.

It was also among men having sex with men that U.S. doctors first realized, in 1981, that there was a never-before-seen disease that could destroy the immune system. That disease came to be known as human immunodeficiency virus.

"In the gay male community, we think about it (HIV) a lot more because it attacked our community first. It’s wiped out a number of us," said William Conley of Pollock Pines, California. His tattoo, a biohazard symbol with the Celtic motif of a crown of thorns circling around it, means he’s winning the fight against this disease.

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