February 2, 2024

What Is the Gay Tattoo?

Tattoos have a long history in the LGBTQ community, from the way gay men kept track of their sexual activity by tattooing themselves with iconic symbols to the reclaiming of the pink triangle, used by Nazis to brand homosexuals, as a sign of solidarity for HIV awareness. Today, there’s a whole subculture of tattoo artists who specialize in queer and lesbian iconography and symbolism. Some of them are showcased in the new book, Queer Tattoo. It’s a collection of works by 50 international tattoo artists who want to “subvert the hierarchies and patriarchal structures” of traditional tattooing, its editors and authors say in a press release.

Many people in the LGBTQ community opt for rainbow-colored tattoos, including the pride flag, originally designed by Gilbert Baker for San Francisco’s 1978 Pride celebrations. Its colors—pink for sex, red for love, orange for joy, yellow for healing, green for nature, turquoise for art, and indigo for harmony—are meant to represent the diversity of our community.

Another common symbol is the biohazard, or warning, symbol, which some people get to signal their status as HIV-positive. It’s especially popular among gay men, who in 2009 accounted for 61% of new infections. It’s a way to signal their status without having to come out, and may also help with prevention, since unprotected sex is the number one way to transmit HIV, AIDS researcher Michael Howard says. The biohazard is also commonly seen on the arms of people in transitional living homes for HIV-positive adults, like at Alexian Brothers Bonaventure House in Chicago and The Harbor in Waukegan, Illinois.

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