When Rob Curtis, 36, showed up for his appointment at a well known East London tattoo studio, he was informed by the receptionist that the artist he was working with would not carry out the work because she didn’t feel comfortable tattooing someone with HIV.
Although Curtis said he had suffered discrimination for his sexuality before, he said this was the first time he had been denied a service because of his medical condition.
“It was awful,” he said. “I was really shocked and had an empty feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I felt really helpless. I don’t feel like a second-class citizen every day.” Compounding this, he said, was the fact that the tattooist “wasn’t even willing to face me personally and to say they weren’t able to do the work”.
Curtis has since made a formal complaint to the licensing department of the local council and will also be complaining to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Equality Act.
“Tattoo parlours should have universal safety precautions in place to protect all their customers and staff from communicable diseases. We will write to this business and, if discrimination is found to have taken place, we will take action. Hackney is a place for everyone and we strive to uphold that.”
Curtis told BuzzFeed News he was turned away minutes after he had disclosed his HIV status in the customer information questionnaire – and minutes before the work was to begin. “It’s humiliating,” he said.
He said the apprentice then offered to see if another artist would be willing to work on someone with HIV, suggesting that an email could be sent round. Curtis said he declined the offer, telling her: “I’m not sure I want to do business here again.” – buzzfeed.com
Is this discrimination or artist's choice?
How do all the players in this case respond?
Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director of the Terrence Higgins Trust:
“There are no documented cases of HIV transmission due to tattooing. Any reputable tattoo parlour should already be taking precautions to protect their customers against infections, without exception – for example using fully sterilised equipment and single-use, disposable needles. If a tattooist is adhering to these precautions, there is no medical or legal reason why they should turn away someone who is living with HIV. In fact, to do so is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. Not only that but, crucially, people who are on effective HIV medication are uninfectious and cannot pass the virus on – through needles or any other means.”
Curtis left a comment on the tattooist’s Instagram page complaining about how he had been treated. She replied to him in a series of messages, which he forwarded to BuzzFeed News, explaining that she was too nervous about contracting HIV to tattoo him. It was, she wrote, her “personal chose [choice] not discrimination”.
Curtis wrote back: “Refusing to serve someone on the basis of their HIV status is classified as Direct Discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Your actions were shocking and disappointing…I chose to disclose my status out of respect. I could easily have lied but I chose honesty. Discrimination is always unacceptable.”
“I share your disgust and outrage about the way you have been treated. As do many of my coworkers. It is a dark fact about the tattoo industry that uneducated people refuse to tattoo a client with HIV. They are unaware of scientific facts, the minimal risks, and advancements in transmission prevention. I admire you for speaking out publicly about the discrimination you suffered. We are all trained to treat every station as if the client has blood bourne [sic] pathogens. We take numerous medical level procautions [sic] with this in mind. Another thing that makes the refusal to tattoo someone ridiculous.”
Owner of the studio, Maxime Plescia-Buchi:
“I deplore what happened but I can not force anyone to do something they do not feel comfortable doing. It is not a policy at Sang Bleu to discriminate and most artists wouldn’t care. I am happy to tattoo you myself if you want. I personall [sic] have many HIV positive clients. That is what I can offer to you. Otherwise the only person to answer for the situation is Malvina in person as artists are independent contractors and not Sang Bleu employees.”
Sang Bleu – Statement from the studio:
"The Sang Bleu studio has a strong anti-discrimination stance. One artist declined to design a tattoo for personal reasons. Sang Bleu immediately offered an alternative artist for the same service. The customer did not take up this offer and his deposit was refunded in full. We regret the upset caused to the customer and are in contact with him to try to resolve his concerns.”
Several decades old American lawsuits are on record for supporting individuals with HIV in cases like this. One such lawsuit from 1996 found an artist guilty for turning down a patron because he was HIV-positive.
In 1996 a case was filed against a tattoo artist named Adam Gray at 8-Ball Tattoo in Ohio, by a person with HIV. Other counties in Ohio had adopted a similar practice on tattooing people with HIV/AIDS that allowed for the refusal of service. The artist refused service to the person with HIV citing the same reasoning that was used against me. The person was more confident in them self than I was and sued the tattoo artist. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the person with HIV because of the ADA. Which means the tattoo artists in the area have no basis for their practice of screening people and what they are doing is illegal. – gaysaltlake.com
Even in 2007, transcripts from another lawsuit read, "Tattoo artists are no more likely than health care workers to become infected through an accidental needle stick. It's 2007 and one thought is, the message has been drummed out there 25 years now. Unless you are having sex with the person that is piercing you, there's nothing to worry about. People get worried about the wrong thing. People get worried about getting infected by a tattoo artist, when they don't use condoms." (clevescene.com)
But if you do a simple Google search, you will find many cases where HIV+ individuals have shared their stories of being turned away because of their status. Brian Ledford shared his story on thebody.com in 2014. He was very upset at being turned away and asked many questions in his post, one was:
I guess the question comes down to disclosure. Are you required by law to inform a tattoo artist of your HIV status? I think it is a good idea, that way the artist not only makes sure they take the proper steps to protect themselves, but it also helps to protect you as well. Even if not required by law I think you should tell them. If there was some freak accident and the artist was pricked with the needle, you do not want to face criminal charges or be sued for not disclosing. I guess it really has to do with the local laws in your area. – thebody.com
So what do you do if you are HIV+ and looking for a tattoo?
Are you honest with your status when getting a tattoo?
Do you look for someone who appreciates your honesty and is willing and able to work with you?
Are you honest and if turned away, do you you report / sue?