The Positive Side

Winter 2013 

Chatty CATIE: Got Ink?

4 people with HIV talk about their tats and all that

Interviews by RonniLyn Pustil


Robert MacLeod tattoo

Robert MacLeod, 36

HIV+: 8 years
Job: Medical lab technologist

How many tattoos do you have?

Why so many?
This is a question I get asked a lot. Tattoos are my passion, my hobby, my obsession. I got each one for a different reason.

What are some of the reasons?
Each tattoo has a unique source of inspiration. When something happens in my life that I feel is significant or meaningful, I add a new tattoo to represent that event. That way, I’ll always remember that moment in time.

What do your tattoos represent to you?
My skin is a living canvas of my experiences. My life’s story is etched in the lines and shading. I was born naked and screaming, waiting for my life to write itself on my skin. The connection goes way beyond a needle and some ink: It’s about art, expression and sharing.

How do people generally react?
Reactions are mixed. The first impression I give to the world is not an accurate picture of who I am—people think I just got out of prison or I’m a thug. I actually have a successful professional life! But most reactions are positive. People often stare and I get a lot of strange looks. They always want to know why I have so many tattoos. I don’t feel I need to justify this in any way. Simply put, tattoos are my passion and I take pride in them.

Do you have plans for any more?
Absolutely! As my life’s story continues to write itself, there will be more important times and events to represent. I can tell you what I was feeling at the time I got each piece and what it means to me. Years from now, when my life story ends, it will all be there in permanent ink.


Mike O'Shaughnessy tattoo

Mike O’Shaughnessy, 40

HIV+: 8 years
Job: IT support tech and writer

How many tattoos do you have?
Many, all over my upper body.

Why did you get them all?
Originally, as markings to remind myself of specific events. Now they are ways to redefine how I’m seen and how I see myself. In effect, I draw the person and the life I want on my own skin.

What’s the story behind them?
Each tattoo was inspired by something important to me—either something beautiful or a life-altering experience.

The first was a small rune that means “See-er of truth.” It’s over my heart—a reminder to remain true to myself.

The tattoo on my back, designed using tribal styling, hints at wings—representing flight, freedom and, as they extend onto the upper backs of my arms, protection. The designs were extended onto my upper chest and into sleeves for both arms.

The last tattoo to date is a set of letters—LJ, the initials of a man I loved very much, Little John. It was commissioned as he was dying in the hospital in 2005 from AIDS. In the last real conversation I had with him, I took his hand, as he was almost blind by this point, and traced the letters with his fingers, explaining that he would be, for all time, a part of my skin, of me. He died two days later.

How do people react to them?
Often with a prejudiced sense of who I am.

Frankly, it’s useful as a gay man. Sometimes, when I’m walking around late at night, people see a shaved-head, bearded, jeans-and-boots kind of guy with tattoos. It’s easy to just leave it at that and be left alone. In other circles, people find them attractive and striking. Those who approach me about them are often surprised and amazed by the clarity and depth of the colour and the overall sense of coherent design. Among gay men, it’s often an excuse to touch my arms (laughs).

Do you have plans for any more?
At some point I’d like to get my legs done with something evoking earth. Tattoos truly are addictive.


Catherine tattoo

Catherine, 34

HIV+: 12 years
Job: Self-employed

How many tattoos do you have?

What’s the story behind it?
I became close friends with a woman from the Bahamas. We’re now like sisters—we say we’re sisters by choice. We’re both transsexual. When I was visiting her in the Bahamas, four or five years ago, we got the same tattoo: a butterfly. For me, it’s a symbol of being trans. It’s on my left breast. When I wear something low-cut, you can see it.

Plans for any more?
I’m thinking of getting another one on my arm. I’m an activist when it comes to trans rights, and I’m proud of it. There’s a trans logo, which consists of an arrow on top and a cross on the bottom—a combination of the man and woman symbols. I found one on the Internet that’s really nice; it’s done in a Celtic style. That’s the one I’d like to get. I need to be proud of being trans and live it.

I might get it this winter. Since I hate pain, I need a good reason to get another one!


Kyle Vose tattoo

Kyle Vose, 40

HIV+: 10 years
Job: AIDS and anti-poverty activist

What’s the story behind your tattoos?
I always wanted a tattoo when I was younger but I grew up religious and was told it was wrong. When I came out, my religion was taken away from me, so I got my first tattoo about 11 years ago.

How many do you have?
Ten. My first one was a flying fire-breathing dragon with blood coming out of his claws. I got another one on my other arm in Hebrew script—chai, the Hebrew word for life. On my back I have two tattoos that are for my kids: One is a heart with both of their names in it and the other is a little map of Ecuador, where their mother is from. I also have a tribal tattoo on my back. From my pelvis to my belly button, I have a tribal-floral image with a couple of thistles coming out of it. The flowers symbolize life, but the thistles mean, if you treat me the wrong way, I’ll hurt you.

Do you regret getting any of them?
One of my tattoos got me infected with HIV and hepatitis B. I had it done at someone’s house who was learning to be a tattoo artist. I don’t blame them. You have to know the risk when you’re going into something. You can’t expect someone else to protect you when it’s your job to protect yourself. I ended up in the hospital exactly three weeks after that tattoo, so I figured it was that.

Do you want to get rid of that tattoo?
That tattoo is a garden—sometimes you plant something and you might not get exactly what you were expecting. I’m very spiritual, so I feel like this might have been given to me for a reason. A lot of people make mistakes, so why am I going to beat myself up for it? I’m going to use it to my advantage, as a stepping stone and not as a crutch.

How do people generally react to your tattoos?
The Hebrew ones get the most reaction. I almost got fired from a job because I offended an Orthodox person with my Hebrew tattoos. And I get a lot of people asking what they mean. That’s usually an opening for me to do outreach about what I do.

Do you have advice for people who want a tattoo?
If you’re getting a tattoo for a relationship, have a backup plan in case it doesn't work out. You might need to get creative if the relationship doesn’t survive.

Plans for any more?
I’d like to get at least one or two more. At age 22, I had Hodgkin’s disease. I struggled through it but I survived. After that, I got HIV and hepatitis B. Then I had a heart attack and they didn’t think I was going to make it. And now I have diabetes. It’s amazing that I’m still here. So I want to get a hand tattooed on my ankle to symbolize somebody or something pulling me back down to earth, to keep me here. There’s still more work for me to do—it’s not time for me to go yet.