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Warning: Pop Culture Appropriates Warning
Guest Editorial by Steve Mockensturm
“Make your own posters, stencils and resources using our exciting resizeable biohazard symbol. Available in a range of delicious flavours.” — geneticsaction.org.uk

So states a resource page at the website for the Genetic Engineering Network, a watchdog group concerned with the proliferation of genetically modified foods. Though certainly tongue-in-cheek, it seems a little odd to use ‘exciting’ and ‘delicious’ in close proximity to a signal of warning.


Developed in 1966 at Dow Chemical Company by Charles Baldwin and some “marketing people”, the trefoil design addressed the need for a universal mark - a la the radiation symbol - to warn humans of potential or actual dangers from biologically hazardous material. At the time, a non-standardized array of symbols were in use to mark infectious agents: a blue triangle emblazoned with ‘BIO’ (Army), a pink rectangle with radiating yellow bands (Navy), Hermes’ caduceus reversed out of a violet field (Universal Postal Convention).

Baldwin’s fiery red-orange symbol was researched, tested and finally presented in 1967 to the American Association of Contamination Control. Soon after, it received the blessings of the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

It’s a wicked little abstract glyph that 21st century popular culture has enthusiastically appropriated and transformed. Examining the historical connections will lead to the ancient, tribal symbols triskalion and triquetra. The organic influence of the trifoliate shapes of red clover and Bird’s-foot operate as testament to the symbol’s biological context. And there is no denying the underlying mathematical purity of the mark.


Advance to the late �90s. Baldwin encounters a seminar speaker who, as a gift to attendees, designs a necktie with a pattern of biohazard symbols. Though apparently happy with the graphic ubiquity, he chides the man for abusing the mark in such a fashion.

Wouldn’t he be amazed at what is going on today?


And tattoos.

But wait… In an inspired and somewhat macabre turn, a biohazard tattoo on a gay man has come to mean: “I am HIV positive.” One would think that the disclosure of seropositive status is usually a discrete matter, but some are intent on doing away with the hush and mutter that can result from diagnosis. Asymptomatic patients with this kind of tattoo have made clear the facts not evident on cursory inspection. Furthermore, the shocked awareness raised by this remarkable gesture goes a little deeper into one’s consciousness than something a common red ribbon might trigger.

It’s a tricky move. Back in ‘86 William F. Buckley Jr. thought it would be a good idea to mark HIV positive individuals for easy social identification. Should we think nothing of the potential for discrimination, harassment and surveillance?

However, this is what the original mark was designed for: a warning. Who’s being more responsible, more true to the intent of Baldwin’s symbol? The trinket makers or the voluntarily tattooed? The biohazard symbol serves to alarm that the material in this container presents a “risk or potential risk to the well being of man, either directly through his infection or indirectly through disruption of his environment.”

In light of this twist, perhaps the unmotivated significance of a pop cultural icon will be replaced and returned to the motivated significance of a potential danger. To paraphrase Baldwin: this is not simply a cool design to be taken lightly.

Steve Mockensturm is an artist and creative partner with Madhouse, a small design shop on the banks of the Maumee River in Perrysburg, Ohio. He plays piano, stacks rocks and is a chocolate snob.

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ARCHIVE ID 2147 FILED UNDER Branding and Identity
PUBLISHED ON Nov.22.2004 BY Speak Up
Darrel’s comment is:

Nothing to add other than to say that was a fascinating little read.

On Nov.22.2004 at 11:17 AM
marian’s comment is:

Of course, pop culture will appropriate anything it can get its hands on, but traditionally it gravitates towards the "wicked." Note that the recycling logo has not held much cache in the rock'n'roll set.

Add to the fact that that is one wicked mark, in the '90s sense of the word.

As for the tattoo: as with anything else, what we choose to permanently or impermanently identify ourselves with is interesting and legitimate. What others propose to legislate is fascism and worse.

A great read. Thanks for that.

On Nov.22.2004 at 12:15 PM
Rob ’s comment is:

Fascinating read, and oddly reminiscent of the German National Socialist Party's co-opting of an ancient symbol of good (and the Boy Scout's 'Thanks Badge'). The swastika was forever changed in its meaning by the horrific acts of just one group, though it had persevered for many years as a symbol of good until then.

I always seem to chuckle at the many icons and logos that are made into a fashion statement with the wearer's or users having no clue of the elements actual meaning. It just looks cool seem reason enough to display or propagate an image. Are we not a materialistic society?

Anyhow, thanks for the write-up, it was awesome and greatly enjoyed without a hint of danger.

On Nov.22.2004 at 05:15 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

Thanks. That was a fun piece to develop. 'Tis my privilege to share it here.

Ran into an odd phenomenon in the synapses whilst exploring: A tattoo artist is keenly aware of the risk of infections from his trade. Created a weird cause-effect-cause-effect feedback loop in my head.

A little off his radar, to be sure, but I knew I was on to something when DesignMaven came back stumped on the history of the symbol.

On Nov.22.2004 at 09:07 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

"When the gods are angry at us, they make us believe our own advertising."

On Nov.22.2004 at 09:38 PM
Daniel’s comment is:

Warning: Refreshingly Informative Content.

On Nov.23.2004 at 09:30 AM
David V.’s comment is:

Ironically, while I support what Genetic Engineering Network is trying to do re GM foods, I think as design it fails miserably, precisely for the reason that the Biohazard symbol has been so relentlessly appropriated and watered down. Its almost easy to forget that it has an actual meaning other than a logo on a metalhead's t-shirt or a facile signifier for eschatological anxieties. Were i to see it on an apple or an ear of corn, my first instinct might be that the the store had been hit by mischevious teenagers promoting a band, not environmental activists trying to warn me away from a GM organism.

On Nov.23.2004 at 11:25 AM
Lorenzo’s comment is:

Great post. This is the first I've heard of the symbol being culled for use by a gay individual that is HIV positive (how long has that been going on?). That decision is quite interesting, considering the fact that it has been overly adopted. As well, this symbol makes me think about at the swastika and its history.

Has anybody read The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? by Steven Heller and Jeff Roth. This is one of the many books I’d like to read.

On Nov.23.2004 at 04:26 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

I remember being attracted to this kind of symbol for a short period of time in early high-school (I won’t really go there), and recall “discussing” them with my friends and rationalizing their meaning, which of course we were “pulling out of our sleeve” and really had no idea of what it meant, or its history.

Having said that, I had heard about the Aids tattoo. Personally I don’t really understand why someone would want to wear this as a “card” or “presentation item”, but then there are many personal decisions in the world that I don’t comprehend. Is it a warning? A cry for help? Or a this is me, take it or leave it — attitude.

On Nov.23.2004 at 05:04 PM
Trent Williams’s comment is:

I have often wondered how this symbol was chosen to represent biohazard. And I am surprised there is no mention of the, essentially, identical Japanese symbol used to represent something to do with fishing or shipping. The symol, without the thick inner circle, is three anchors. This symbol and variations on the anchor theme are listed in this Dover book. http://store.yahoo.com/doverpublications/0486228746.html.

On Nov.24.2004 at 04:16 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:


From Baldwin, C.L. and Runkle, R.S. Science 158: 264-265, 1967

Biohazards Symbol: Development of a Biological Hazards Warning Signal During investigations of biological control and containment conducted under contract for the National Cancer Institute, the need for such a symbol became apparent to the Dow biohazards research and development team, A search of the literature revealed that, while certain biological warning signs are used by various agencies, a universal symbol to warn of danger from infectious or potentially infectious agents - a symbol whose immediate significance is known to all - does not exist. Colleagues in the field of biological research concurred, in reply to direct query, that such a warning symbol is needed.

Universally accepted symbols for hazards that are not readily detectable have already been established, such as those used in denoting radioactive areas. Similar warning notices are being sought to point out danger due to laser emission. In biology laboratories, however, a number of different symbols are in use; none of these has been universally accepted, and none imply or encompass all possible biohazards. For example, an inverted blue triangle bearing the term "BIO" is used by the Army to warn of biological contamination; a rectangular "hot-pink" label, with radiating yellow bands, is used by the U.S. Navy laboratories in areas containing infectious organisms; a red and black sign is used by the National Institutes of Health to mark restricted areas; and the white snake-and-staff imprint on a violet field is sponsored by the Universal Postal Convention to mark infectious materials during transit.The sign color stipulated in the standard form is fluorescent orange-red.In formulating the design for the proposed biohazards symbol, six criteria were established, mainly dealing with the psychology of recognition and retention. These criteria, in order of their importance, are that the symbol be (i) striking in form in order to draw immediate attention; (ii) unique and unambiguous, in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes; (iii) quickly recognizable and easily recalled; (iv) easily stenciled; (iv) symmetrical, in order to appear identical from all angles of approach; and (vi) acceptable to groups of varying ethnic backgrounds. Dow artists created more than 40 symbol designs, of which six were selected for testing. A survey to ascertain acceptability of the six symbols was conducted among Dow employees. This survey was directed toward determining uniqueness and memorability. To select the final symbol, a nationwide survey, based on precepts well established in masspsychology experimentation, was conducted in two parts. First, the candidate symbols were tested for uniqueness by determining which had the least prior association for the viewer. Three hundred subjects, males and females, from 25 cities and with various amounts of income and formal education were shown the six symbols along with 18 other commonly used symbols. They were asked what each symbol meant, or was used for. Participants were also encouraged, if un- certain, to guess at the meaning. A “meaningfulness score” was obtained for each symbol based on the percentage of respondents who offered any association whatever, to the symbol. Since the purpose was to determine the least meaningful symbol, the smaller scores identified the most desirable symbols. One week after the initial survey had been conducted, participants were revisited for a "memorability" test. The original respondents were shown a group of 60 symbols which included the 24 seen during the first test. They were asked to identify those symbols which they had been shown on the first interview. Each symbol was given a "memorability score" that depended on the percentage of participants who correctly identified the symbol as having appeared in the earlier test. Identical memorability scores were obtained for two of the six test symbols, and these scores exceeded the average for the other 18 symbols tested. Since one of the two also obtained the lowest score in the meaningfulness test, it emerged as the one symbol best qualified as being both unique and memorable .This symbol and the recommendations regarding usage have been submitted to the United States of America Standards Institute for inclusion in their next revision of the "Standard Specifications for Industrial Accident Prevention Signs," Z3S.1 code. This symbol, in fluorescent fire-orange color, has been evaluated during a 6-month period at the National Cancer Institute and other selected laboratories engaged in studies involving hazardous agents. These cooperating research groups included the U.S. Army Biological Laboratories and U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories, as well as a number of commercial and academic laboratories working under National Institutes of Health research grants and contracts. In view of its acceptance by the scientists during this evaluation, the National Institutes of Health is recommending that this symbol be used as a general biological hazard warning.

CHARLES L. BALDWIN Dow Biohazards Research and Development Department, Pitman-Moore Division, The Dow Chemical Company, Indianapolis, Indiana ROBERT S. RUNKLE National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland

On Nov.25.2004 at 03:01 PM
Mark’s comment is:

Oh boy, a warning symbol is being used as a logo what will they think of next?

On Aug.18.2005 at 01:34 PM
Anon-a-mouse’s comment is:

As a HIV positive gay man, I have embraced the biohazard symbol. My reasons are many, but mainly as a warning to those around me.

I was not informed of the status of the person who infected me, I do not wish to inflict that on anyone else.

What most people fail to realize is that with the medications today, you can not look at a person who is HIV positive and see any outward signs that they may pose a health risk.

If anything, most HIV positive people are likly to be more healthy, and fit than the average joe walking down the street, simply because we have to be proactive about our health and fitness in order to remain healthy.

This can potentially pose a problem, espeically if a relationship forms between someone who is positive and someone who is negative.

By tattooing myself with the Biohazard symbol, I am letting those who may be interested in a relationship with me know ahead of time, so they can make a decision weather they want to risk exposure.

By tattooing myself, I also reduce unwanted and troublesome social interactions.

For those of you who are not HIV positive, imagine forging a relationship with someone, only to have to tell them that you are infected with a virus that is potentially fatal. This kind of disclosure can kill a relationship, and causes all kinds of unwanted drama.

By advertising the fact that I am positive, I preemptivly put a stop these kinds of situations. In effect, I am using the biohazard warning as a shield, to protect others, and myself.

On Mar.11.2008 at 10:28 AM
Porter’s comment is:

The biohazard symbol is a reflection of humanities current legacy; extremely hazardous to life... all life, including ourselves. To me the human race is clearly the most ignorant race ever; a race with the ability to reason and do right yet having an impact that defies all logic and literally dooms the race itself to extinction. Pretty stupid if you ask me. But the possibility remains for us to awake from our "collective state of insanity" and change it all for the better. Until then we are definitely the greatest biohazard of all time.

The quote surrounding it is that of Peter Singer, a professor of Bio-Ethics at Princeton University. He is also the author of the classic book 'Animal Liberation,' a book that has been called the "Bible of the Animal Rights Movement."

On Apr.06.2008 at 07:38 PM