AIDS, Posters & Stories of Public Health: A People's History of Pandemic

A collage of four AIDS posters

The archive of public health posters about AIDS at the National Library of Medicine is rooted in the cultural output of artists, activists, and community workers.

Their work, specifically the use of personal narrative, drawing as a visual art strategy, language, and the collective process in the creation of AIDS posters, continues to broadcast the message that, 40 years after the crisis began, AIDS is not over.

In 1981, doctors in the United States took notice of an illness ravaging people’s immune systems and causing premature death. By 1985, scientists identified HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) as the virus that, left untreated, led to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Since then, AIDS has become one of the deadliest pandemics in history according to the National Institutes of Health.

ac
A group of men stand together looking at a poster in a pharmacy window

Producer HealyKohler Design, 2021

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Early on, the public and the United States government neglected HIV/AIDS. In response, dying people and their communities took action. In 1981, nurse Bobbi Campbell put up a poster in the window of his local pharmacy that read “GAY CANCER.” He included photos of lesions he had on his body. He advised people with similar marks to seek medical attention. Decades later, Campbell can be seen as making one of the earliest, if not the first AIDS poster. He died in 1984, unable to see the full impact of his work.

ac
A group of men and women march outside holding up protest signs

Producer T. L .Litt (photograph), 1989

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Members of the group ACT UP demand improved AIDS care at Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn, NY

ac
A White woman sitting in a subway car holding magazines, behind her head hangs a poster saying “AIDS”

Producer General Idea (AIDS poster), Peter Bellamy (photograph) for Public Art Fund, 1989

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

New York City subway riders saw many public health posters about HIV/AIDS, such as the AIDS poster by General Idea photographed here.

Putting People First

Posters as Platform for People Living with HIV to Tell and See their Stories

Artists, activists, community health workers, government officials, and pharmaceutical companies make public health posters that feature “real” people and their stories of living with HIV/AIDS.

These posters often highlight the lived experiences from within communities disproportionately impacted by HIV yet too often left out of more mainstream AIDS representations.

Seeing these posters that feature people and stories that may be familiar could empower viewers with HIV, who may feel isolated, to know that they are not alone.

People
Decorative background image with the word people overlaid
A young woman walking in a field with a quote

Producer Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1993

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

This poster from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) features a quote from Krista Blake, a young woman who contracted HIV as a teenager. Her quote is in conversation with assumptions at the time—overtly, that HIV was not a rural issue and covertly, that HIV was not a woman’s issue. Krista’s testimony, and presumably her image, are on the poster, populating the public imagination that women living with HIV reside in the country. She died soon after the CDC published the poster.

“Most people think HIV is only a problem in big cities. Unfortunately, I was one of those people.” Krista Blake, HIV Positive

One in 250 Americans is infected with HIV.
1-800-342-AIDS
American Responds to AIDS
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Public Health Service
CDC

A poster with the portrait of a smiling man and the title, “I believe in my community”

Producer AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Better World Advertising, ca. 2000

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Meet Marlon, a young man who is part of the HIV Stops with Me campaign from Better World Advertising. This ongoing project positions people with HIV as the answer to ending the pandemic. For some, this can feel stigmatizing, for others, it is empowering. The poster allows you to consider and decide for yourself.

I believe in my Community

I felt really alone after I learned I had HIV. Now I get strength from other positive guys.

We share ways of staying healthy.

We also support each other in our commitment to keep out HIV negative partners safe

Marlon positive since 1990

hivstopswithme.org

A collaboration of AIDS Action Committee of MA, Boston Public Health Commission, MA Department of Public Health and San Francisco Department of Public Health

Design: Better World Advertising [www.socialmarketing.com]

AIDS ACTION COMMITTEE

Public Health Commission BOSTON

An African American male wearing a leopard print dress and black shawl while leaning on a pool table

Producer HIV/AIDS Program, ca. 1995

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

“Believe Me Sweetie, HIV Can Still Be a Drag,” is printed on the back of this image. No name is provided but the text alludes to identity, with “drag” being a play on words referring to gender. For someone living with HIV who has experienced gender discrimination, this image could signal that there are providers where they could be seen and treated as themselves.

A poster with repeated images of a Black woman with sunglasses and green hair with white text

Producer AIDS ACTION NOW!, 2016

Courtesy Postervirus, an affinity group of AIDS ACTION NOW!

Kia LaBeija made this poster for the activist collective AIDS ACTION NOW! for their public art campaign Poster Virus. LaBeija appears in a series of self-portraits on the poster beneath text that reads, “#undetectable.” The term has become an identity marker for some people living with HIV, used to describe how once on treatment, their viral load can become suppressed to an undetectable level, resulting in better health, and rendering the virus untransmittable.

Drawing People In

Poster as Canvas where People Can Share the Immediacy of HIV

Millions of people in the United States live with HIV, yet the experience can feel specific and isolating.

Drawing can bridge the divide. As a technique, drawing provides an opportunity for a person to make and share visuals that do not yet exist and that no one else but the artist themselves can see and create.

Posters that feature hand drawn images offer insights into different techniques: artists living with and familiar with the virus, and the unique human experience of HIV, which throughout the past decades has often been many things, including painful and scary.

Drawing
Decorative background image with the word drawing overlaid
Drawing of a standing African American women, one with her hands in her pocket, the other with her arms cross, surrounded by handwritten text

A Community Responds

An unnamed artist belonged to the close-knit community brought together by activist DiAna DiAna in her South Carolina hair salon. In 1988, the artist produced a series of drawings featuring children, same sex couples, single women, and people who inject drugs, asking questions, giving advice, and looking to viewers to join them as they deal with the emotional fallout of the virus.

This is one of ten images from the unknown artist from DiAna’s hair salon. It features a rare portrait of a romantic relationship between two women navigating HIV.

South Carolina AIDS Education Network, 1988
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

What do you mean “we should start seeing other people”

 

No matter how good they look…do you want to die for them?

 

The wrong choice can kill you.

AIDS - don’t Get it!

 

Copyright 1988 SCAEN Inc.

Drawing of a skull with its mouth open on a red background with the title “AIDS is not funny…but it laughs in your face”

Producer Tim Macdonald with Megan Adcock for YouthCare, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

A hand-drawn skull, starkly rendered against a red backdrop, laughs in viewers’ faces, becoming a mirror held up by those who know and want to share their insight with individuals who look but dare to not take the epidemic seriously.

Drawing of a cartoon-style monster with the title “This is a fictionalized version of the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) monster”

Producer Coronado Neighborhood Council, Center for Trans-Cultural Health Studies, 1988

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

While HIV is a virus with material realities that one can see with a microscope, what does AIDS look like? An artist created a burdened looking “AIDS monster,” perhaps encouraging us to come to the advertised seminar for healing and exploration.

Drawing of a man in a flannel holding up a condom with the title “Safe Sex, Are You Man Enough”

Producer B. Rapp for Aids for AIDS, California Department of Health Services, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The style of drawing in this poster is as important as the content. The realistic drawing of a man, whose masculinity becomes the focus, would have been familiar from advertising and community art to gay men, the target audience for the poster’s message of condom use and safer sex. 

Drawing of two passing each other, one with a speech bubble that says, “Hey Man! No Sharing!!”, the other holding a boombox, and between them is a large syringe

Producer Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The delicacy of the line used to draw the oversized hovering needle pulls a viewer’s eye to the center of the poster where, strategically, in front of the needle, is the main message: “don’t share.” The words are in a speech bubble between two people, drawn in thick lines, with grounding shadows underfoot. All of these choices indicate an awareness with the object and community depicted, a kind of tenderness that makes space for the lure of drugs, and the effectiveness of communication between people who use drugs.

Drawing of a skeletal hand flipping a coin with the title “Sida Pa Ba W 2 Chans Ou Pran: W Ale”

Producer Klodi Lemoine for Haitian Coalition on AIDS, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Klodi Lemoine drew an image of a skeleton flipping a coin. We only see the side with Haitian Coalition on AIDS logo. The poster can serve as a reminder that even as a fear of death looms, our moving bones can reach out for help and—as is the case for the artist—be used to help others.

Translating People’s Experiences

Posters as Opportunity to Say What Is Needed, In Various Ways

Individuals deserve to have health information available in languages and culturally specific ways they understand.

Posters can help make this happen. Word choice, translation, tone, and sentence structure are some of the tools poster makers use to communicate information directly to broad audiences and targeted communities.

The languages used on posters provide us with information on the makers and who they understood as their intended audience.

Translate
Decorative image with the word Translate overlaid
Color drawing of a large group of Haitian Americans marching and holding signs

Producer League Against AIDS, U.S. Office of Minority Health, ca. 1980

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

In this poster we see people taking to the street, but not in protest. With placards in Haitian Creole that read, “Protect yourself, family & children against the HIV virus disease,” and “My fellow Haitians let us fight this AIDS disease together,” the message is of community care.

A poster with four images of hands signing words in American Sign Language

Producer AIDS Rochester, Inc., ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

A poster produced by the New York community organization AIDS Rochester provided a safer sex message in American Sign Language. The top line is the sign for condom. The second line spells out ”HIV.”

Drawing of a hand holding up a card with a skeleton and the word “muerte”; behind are more cards with symbolic images such as a rose, a family, a bottle, the devil; and above is the title “Drogas y Sida: no juegues loteria con tu vida /Drug Abuse and AIDS: don’t play lottery with your life”

Producer STOP AIDS, 1987

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

An AIDS-informed deck of Lotería, a traditional Mexican card game of chance, is used by the Texas organization STOP AIDS. The text of the poster is presented in English and Spanish to enhance efforts to reach targeted communities.

Drawing of a human skull topped with antlers with a few feathers underneath, with the title, “AIDS. Mumkichuth. Pia-him̃dag.”

Producer Community Outreach Project on AIDS in Southern Arizona (COPASA), ca. 1980

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

A striking drawing is coupled with messages in Tohono O’odham, the language of the Tohono O’odhom Nation, native people of the Sororan Desert. Translated into the English, the message is something akin to “AIDS. This sickness is not our way of life.”

AIDS

Mumkichuth.

Pia-himdag.

coll COPASA

Sells 383-2221

Tucson 792-3131

A poster with a lack silhouette of a man and woman, the title “Don’t Share Needles” in red through the middle of the silhouette and more text on top and bottom

Producer Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, ca. 1980

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

“Junkie” and “speedfreak” are words that have been used against people who do drugs. In this poster, the slang is reclaimed by the people of the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic to share the message not to share needles.

JUNKIES

AND

SPEEDFREAKS

OF SAN FRANCISCO:

Don’t SHARE NEEDLES

STOP A.I.D.S.!

People Creating Together

Poster as Place to Gather, Mourn, Organize, and Inspire

Throughout the history of the AIDS crisis, groups of people brought together by the virus created posters. These posters illuminate the networks of people that gathered and worked behind the scenes to educate, care, and generate awareness. The stories that come from the posters provide insights into the tactics used by the makers, along with the challenges and possibilities of the times in which the posters were made. They can serve as a reminder that the act of creation can be as vital to a community as the artifact that is produced.

Together
Decorative image with the word  Together  overlaid
A poster with a pink triangle against a black background and the title “Silence = Death” in white at the bottom

A Collective Work

In the fall of 1986, Brian Howard, Jorge Socarrás, Charles Kreloff, Avram Finkelstein, Chris Lione, and Oliver Johnston (d. 1990) came together to form a consciousness-raising group amid the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Friends and lovers were dying, the public was largely apathetic, and the government was mismanaging the crisis. The men needed each other. Over a year, they met for food, news, and eventually to create the iconic Silence = Death image.

Knowing that it was impossible to represent all communities impacted by AIDS, the five men decided not to picture a person. Instead, they reclaimed the pink triangle, the Nazi symbol used to mark queer people during the Jewish Holocaust.

In 1987, weeks after the first Silence = Death poster appeared on the streets of New York City, ACT UP, an influential AIDS activist collective, formed separately. Since then, Silence = Death and ACT UP have been linked, becoming emblems of the ongoing response to AIDS.

Like many other posters, Silence = Death emerged out of a collective process. The men brought their pain and resources to communicate that people dealing with HIV were not alone and that, amid mass suffering, change was needed.

Producer The Silence = Death Collective, 1987
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Graphic design of the word “AIDS” in a square format, red text on a blue and green background

Producer General Idea, Public Art Fund, New York, NY, 1987

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

AIDS began as a painting by GENERAL IDEA (AA Bronson, Felix Partz, d. 1994; Jorge Zontal, d.1994) inspired by artist Robert Indiana’s work LOVE. From there, the stylized treatment of “AIDS” became a stamp, a sculpture, and of course, a widely circulating poster. Less than 10 years after the creation of the painting, Partz and Zontal died of AIDS-related complications.

A poster with a title that says,  AIDS is killing Blacks too! , text, and a portrait of an African American woman, man, and child

Producer Minority AIDS Project, 1989

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The use of the Pan-African flag's colors reinforced the message of the poster along with the mission of the poster-making organization, Minority AIDS Project (MAP). Founded in 1985, MAP was created to meet the needs of people living with HIV within African American and Latino communities in LA. The poster shares lifesaving information while also communicating to Black and Latino people concerned about HIV, that there is a place where they can go.

AIDS IS KILLING BLACKS TOO!

 

DOES NOT CARE IF YOU ARE:

 

Rich or poor

Straight, gay or bi-sexual

Male or female

Black, White, Hispanic or Asian

Old or young

Doing drugs or not

AIDS is a killer !!

 

Use Latex condoms (rubbers), that contain (Nonoxynol-9).

No “rimming” or oral-anal contact.

Limit your number of sex partners.

You get AIDS by sexual contact or sharing needles.

If you have oral sex don’t let your partner ejaculate (cum) in your mouth.

don’t share sex toys, enema equipment or douching equipment.

Avoid exchange of body fluids (semen [cum], urine, blood).

If you shoot drugs DO NOT SHARE NEEDLES.

Reduce alcohol intake and mind-altering drugs.

AIDS can be spread sexually from men to men, from men to women, and from women to men.

Babies can be born with the virus if the mother is infected.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? ASK US:

 

Contact: MINORITY AIDS PROJECT (213) 936-4949

AIDS IS KILLING BLACKS TOO!

 

DOES NOT CARE IF YOU ARE:

 

Rich or poor

Straight, gay or bi-sexual

Male or female

Black, White, Hispanic or Asian

Old or young

Doing drugs or not

AIDS is a killer !!

 

Use Latex condoms (rubbers), that contain (Nonoxynol-9).

No “rimming” or oral-anal contact.

Limit your number of sex partners.

You get AIDS by sexual contact or sharing needles.

If you have oral sex don’t let your partner ejaculate (cum) in your mouth.

don’t share sex toys, enema equipment or douching equipment.

Avoid exchange of body fluids (semen [cum], urine, blood).

If you shoot drugs DO NOT SHARE NEEDLES.

Reduce alcohol intake and mind-altering drugs.

AIDS can be spread sexually from men to men, from men to women, and from women to men.

Babies can be born with the virus if the mother is infected.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? ASK US:

 

Contact: MINORITY AIDS PROJECT (213) 936-4949

IN YOUR AREA CALL: © MAP 1989

A poster with text and a drawing of a male and female Native American dressed in traditional Plains Indian dress dancing in front of an outline of a third person in a headdress

Producer Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The role of community and tradition in dealing with the HIV epidemic is central to this poster, created by the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center. Founded in 1985 by Native Americans living on or near the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the organization takes an intersectional approach to the virus, which includes being as concerned with HIV stigma as with the impact of prevention on future generations.

AIDS VIRUS 

Traditional values Can Stamp Out The A. l. D. S. Virus

  1. Wisdom: Informing yourself correctly about AIDS, to protect yourself and those you care about.
  2. Generosity: Sharing what you have learned about AIDS with others is the best way to stop the spread of AIDS in Indian country.
  3. Courage: Having the strength to stand up against peer pressure. And the courage to say no.
  4. Acceptance: Accepting others for the way they are. In sickness and in health.
  5. Respect: To insure future generations, respect your feelings, body, values, your life, and the decision of others.

 “There is an order in life that encircles that man, the woman and the child, everlasting and pure. Silently within the man speaks the love and respect for life. It is echoed in the woman, it is witnessed by the child. This is my heaven, this is my home.” (Chief Dan George, Co-Salish Tribe)

Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center

P.O. BOX 572 LAKE ANDES, SOUTH DAKOTA 57356-0572

AIDS IS NOT OVER

Poster as Reminder that the Crisis Remains

One of the animating forces within the response to AIDS is a fear that people living with HIV in the present will be forgotten, and any attention garnered around the epidemic is eroding.

Multiple organizations have made and still make public health posters that remind people that AIDS is not over and in fact for some people, the AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning. Even though lifesaving treatment became available in 1996 (highly active antiretroviral therapy, also known as HAART, which includes a combination of antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs), barriers to health still exist for the newly-diagnosed and people from neglected communities The work ahead is to remove the harm of diagnosis by finding a cure, ensuring it is accessible to all, and eradicating HIV related stigma, discrimination, and criminalization.

Not Over
The AIDS crisis is not over. Give. Work. Fight, with a four-panel cartoon with a cardboard box of pills, a man juggling three pills in a cocktail glass, a man trapped in an upside-down cocktail glass and a TV

Producer Vernon Edward Berg for Visual AIDS, 1997

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

[Four-panel cartoon]

[Panel 1]

FINAL WE HAVE MEDICINES THAT CAN ACTUALLY HELP PEOPLE LIVING WITH AIDS

[text on cardboard box] AidS researcH MacHine

[Panel 2]

NOW WHEN SOMEONE HAS AIDS THEY TAKE 3 PILLS TOGETHER

THIS IS CALLED “THE COCKTAIL”

[Panel 3]

BUT THEY DON’T WORK FOR EVERYONE 

[Panel 4]

THE CDC ANNOUNCED THAT THEY EXPECT A 50% FAILURE RATE FOR ALL PROTEASE INHIBITORS

The AIDS crisis is not over. give.work.fight

An orange and purple poster with a crowd of abstract figures, above is the title “Until It’s Over…Walk,” and below text information about the “Philadelphia AIDS Walk”

Producer AIDS Fund, Merck & Co., 1999

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Poster with text and the title “AIDS is over, right? (or maybe you should read the fine print)”

Producer Visual AIDS, 1998

Courtesy National Library Medicine

AIDS is over, right?

(or maybe, you should read the fine print)

 

One in four people who become infected with HIV is under the age of 20. In 1997, 55% of Americans wrongly believed they could become infected by sharing a glass of water, up from 48% in ’91. Ignorance is bliss. 29% of Americans living with HIV have no health insurance. ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) is bankrupt in over half of the 50 states, which means that they cannot provide access to the protease cocktail. The protease cocktail costs $16,000 per year per person. Ignorance is bliss. Unprotected sex is the main risk behavior amongst teenagers, accounting for 55% of reported HIV infection in young men, and 37% in young women, as of 1996. While 95% of Americans believe that public schools should provide HIV prevention education, frank discussion of sexuality and condoms in the classroom is still virtually taboo. Ignorance is bliss. Last year, 41% of Americans wrongly believed they could contract HIV from a public toilet, up from 34% in ’91. Ignorance is bliss. AIDS deaths are down. Transmission is up. More people are living with AIDS. Nearly half of HIV+ people undergoing triple-combination therapy have developed resistance, rendering the drugs useless. Ignorance is bliss. One person is infected with HIV in the US every 13 minutes. Ignorance is bliss. 33 Americans are infected every day due to lack of access to needle-exchange programs. 66% of Americans approve of need-exchange programs, yet the government has maintained the ban on funding for needle-exchange. Ignorance is bliss. More than 40% of AIDS cases worldwide are among women. 16,000 people become infected with HIV every day. By the year 2000, there will be more than 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. AIDS is over, right?

 

DAY WITHOUT ART

December 1, 1998

the tenth international day of actin and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis

The back of a woman with a multicolored scarf, above the title “Don’t turn your back on AIDS”

Producer Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, 2005

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Don’t turn your back on AIDS.

 

STOP AIDS.

Make the Promise.

 

Each of us can help stop the spread of HIV and reduce the impact of AIDS.

You don’t have to be a top scientist working on a cure to make a difference.

Protecting yourself and others from HIV infection, welcoming someone living with HIV into your life or even just talking about HIV and AIDS can help.

Are you taking action?

Make your promise now at www.worldaidscampaign.org

A White man dressed with a long blonde braid wig, Viking hat, and a cigarette in his right hand, above a title that says “It Ain’t Over Yet!”

Producer Tom Pitts (photograph) for AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, Better World Advertising, ca. 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

It Ain’t Over Yet!

New drugs are helping us fight AIDS. Some guys are feeling and looking better and the light at the end of the tunnel may be in sight. But the epidemic isn’t over. We’re still getting infected and having HIV is still a real drag.

AIDS ACTION COMMITTEE

800.235.2331

A seated man with a quote below that says, HIV is just a virus. It's the stigma that is the deadly disease.

Producer Act Against AIDS Campaign, CDC, 2018

Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“HIV is just a virus. It’s the stigma that is the deadly disease.”

Stigma hurts the well-being and mental health of people living with HIV, and even prevents some from getting medical treatment. 

Let’s stop HIV stigma together.

Learn how at cdc.gov/together

 

LET’S STOP HIV TOGETHER

A gallery installation with a sculpture and on the back wall a yellow poster with red text that says “The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning”

Producer Gregg Bordowitz, 2018

Courtesy Gregg Bordowitz

A poster with a large white arrow pointing down to  “World AIDS Day September 1 2019, Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Community by Community”

Producer World AIDS Day, 2019

Courtesy HIV.gov