Bob Bowers Story: HIV and Tattoos

Written for – Nov. 2008

Bob Bowers has seemed to defy all the odds over the last 25 years and he has the body ink to prove it. Every tattoo tells a story and Bob can’t tell you his story without telling the story of his journey with HIV.

It’s a story that begins in 1983 when very little was known about HIV and AIDS. At the time getting a diagnosis of HIV was a death sentence. The disease had just been discovered, there were no theories about where it came from, no screening procedures for it and there certainly weren’t the HIV drugs on the market to help treat it that there are today.

Bob was 19 and much like many young men was not immune to peer pressure. The drug was crystal meth. The needle was shared. In that moment Bob became a statistic, one of 285 that year. Two years later, at 21, he received the news he had full blown AIDS when his T4 cell count dropped to 106 (anything below 200 is considered AIDS). Bob is very open about sharing this story and will tell in a no holds barred fashion. In fact, it has become his life’s work, educating others about HIV. In the 25 years since his diagnosis he has become a speaker and advocate addressing high schools, colleges, prison inmates, community organizations, law enforcement personal, business groups and anyone else who will listen. He answers every question, no matter how awkward, with brutal honestly. Parents and teachers may be uncomfortable talking about HIV/AIDS and that is where Bob comes in. His message is simple. “Compassion is our cure.”

Bob has also been responsible for helping to shape HIV policy and raising money to help combat AIDS. Bobs activism has earned him several awards. In 2004 the Aids Network honored him with the Outstanding Client Services Award and again in 2005 with the Outstanding Community HIV/AIDS Services Award. This year he was given the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Elks for Outstanding Service to Humanity.

Bob serves as an example in many ways; as what not do, not to judge a book by its cover and how to be compassionate, understanding and non-judgmental to others.

People often fear what they don’t understand, and people still fear AIDS. There are stigmas of homophobia, poverty, domestic violence, racism, and addictions surrounding it. Bob Bowers wants to dispel those stigmas and teach people that AIDS and HIV do not discriminate. It is just not a gay disease or a disease that affects one demographic. Virtually everyone is at risk. Through his non-profit organization, HIVictorious, and his What Would You Do Campaign Bob has been able to bring his message to a lot of people. The hope is that by education the disease can be prevented.

HIV/AIDS activism is not the only thing Bob Bowers is for. There are also his tattoos. Not only do they serve as another lesson for those who are paying attention, they helped earn him the nickname “Da Pirate” because a retired LA Policeman friend of his said that the first time he saw Bob on his motorcycle “He looked like a friggin’ pirate who ate small children.”

Bob’s got his first tattoo after his HIV diagnosis and has proceeded to get one every year to mark another year that he has been alive living and fighting with HIV. Every tattoo really does tell a story.

I know what a lot of you who are reading this are thinking. I was thinking the same thing and had to step back a moment. Since 1985, when the CDC started tracking this kind of info, there have been no reported cases of HIV coming out of a tattoo parlor. On the other hand, every year approximately 17 cases of HIV are contracted by going to the dentist. I told you virtually everyone was at risk. There is something very ironic about the fact that it is safer to get tattooed than to have dental work done. How is that possible? Tattoo studios and tattoo artists do everything they can to protect themselves and their clients against blood borne pathogens. They take classes on the risks of diseases and how to prevent them. Tattoo artists treat everyone the same, as if they are a potential risk. Just because the pre-tattoo questionnaire asks if you have HIV or Hepatitis C, doesn’t mean people are going to be honest. Surfaces are cleaned between clients, surfaces that come in contact with the tattooed area are wrapped in fresh plastic wrap for each client, disposable equipment and autoclaves are used, tattoo artists use rubber gloves and change them often.

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