When I read about George Westwood, a 19-year-old gay man from the U.K. who was denied a tattoo at a local studio because of his HIV status, I began to see red. As a queer woman who actively collects tattoos, seeking work from different artists all around the country, I’m no stranger to the particular and borderline exclusionary social mores of the tattoo industry. It’s a subculture that, almost a century after its emergence into the U.S., is still largely dominated by white, cisgender, and heterosexual men.
Like most industries, subcultural or not, tattooing has its own codes of conduct. Clients and tattooers alike are expected to respect artists’ integrity, specialized skill, and ability to refuse clients at will.
I don’t have an issue with professional tattooers establishing boundaries about imagery or circumstances in which they will or will not tattoo. After all, you probably shouldn’t get your neck tattooed if you have no visible ink whatsoever—and you definitely shouldn’t be tattooed while inebriated. But when tattoo artists purposefully deny clients from marginalized groups because of circumstances or physical attributes they cannot control, that’s not a personal boundary: it’s misinformed at best, and discriminatory at worst.
Artists at Vida Loca studio in Manchester, England, refused to tattoo Westwood because he is HIV-positive. It was shocking, he told Pink News: “I nearly cried at work. I feel like I’ve made so much progress in such a short space of time, and it feels like all that progress has been thrown back in my face.”
It’s shocking to me, too, but for a different reason. Denying an HIV-positive customer because of their status is, in most cases, completely irrational.
The truth is, any reputable studio uses single-use needles for every tattoo. Beds, chairs, or tables are thoroughly wiped down, sterilized with antibacterial cleaning supplies, and wrapped in fresh plastic film after each client leaves. And artists and shop assistants wash their hands regularly and wear single-use sterile gloves at all times, treating fresh tattoos as what they are: open wounds. This means that both parties—artist and client—should be protected from any blood-borne illnesses.
Hell, even the Center for Disease Control (CDC) admits that the risk of contracting HIV from a tattoo or body piercing procedure is slim-to-none: To date, there are no documented cases of HIV transmission via tattooing procedures in the U.S.
These sort of misguided policies are sadly pretty common. Many tattoo shops have clauses in their waivers, which clients are required to sign off on, that force potential customers to disclose any blood-borne illnesses they might have. (Of course, transparency is important, but being open about your status shouldn’t preclude you from being able to be tattooed.) But discrimination in the tattoo industry doesn’t just happen to people living with HIV/AIDS. For queer people, especially trans or gender-nonconforming folks, tattoo studios are often unwelcoming. These feelings of discomfort—or worse, experiences with outright harassment—are magnified for queer women and femmes or LGBT people of color. Personally, I’ve heard one too many stories about dark-skinned people of color being refused tattoos from artists who “couldn’t” (or didn’t want to) tattoo darker skin tones.
Last summer, I spoke with Em North, a Brooklyn-based tattooer who aims to carve out a space for marginalized people in the tattoo world. North, who uses they/them and she/her pronouns, confirmed that incidents of sexism, racism, and homophobia are rampant in the industry.
“Many clients come to me excited about the intentional safe space I have created for tattooing, so I know that my efforts have not gone to waste,” they told NewNowNext. “And many of these clients are women, people of color, queer, and non-binary folks.”
Studios like North’s are a rarity. However, there is a push for LGBT acceptance and inclusion in tattooing, both for artists and clients. Instagram pages like @queertattooers actively promote work from LGBT tattoo artists around the world, offering a database of safe and welcoming places to get inked without fear of judgment or harassment.
Tattooing is an ancient practice with deep roots in indigenous and non-Western cultures. Excluding marginalized people from tattoo culture is a recent development—and a phenomenon we should all work to dismantle by patronizing inclusive, welcoming, and respectful tattooers.