Case #1. I once had a friend who had a small tattoo on his ankle. This was his only tattoo, but it was important to him. It was a set of Chinese characters, and I asked him what they meant. He told me, “truth.” We’d met in a bar, medicating our sadness over lost loves. I never asked what the tattoo was for, but he told me that it had something to do with his first wife and his daughters, who lived in another town several hours distant, and not the second wife who had thrown him out around the time we met.
Case #2. Ashley Alexandra Dupré has tattoos in different languages (but not English) on different parts of her body. One of them, tutela valui, had the Latin scholars in New York stumped for a while. Seems to mean something like I had strong protection, or I was strong by means of a protector. She has others that are life-affirming sayings and others still that are said to have served as reminders to stay off drugs and clean up her life. She was the call girl, known as Kristen, whose life style led her in and out of escort service and eventually entangled her in Eliot Spitzer’s downfall in March 2008.
Case #3. Leonard Shelby has facts tattooed on his body so that he’ll remember them. Shelby has a mental condition, anterograde amnesia, that prevents him from forming new memories. Along with the tat’s, he “remembers” other facts with Polaroid photographs and paper notes. This doesn’t work that well for him, until he meets a woman with normal memory, who can help him keep it all straight. Along the way, she uses Leonard’s condition to manipulate him into scaring off a man who was harassing her. The fight nearly kills Leonard, who will soon enough find himself back at the place he started. Leonard is a fictional character in a movie.
In a moral sense, we’re all Leonard Shelby, to one degree or another. Whether we’re shooting ink into our skin or not, most of us are doing something to remind ourselves of what we think is true, what we want to be, and what or who we would like to honor. It doesn’t mean that we’re naturally bad, because we’re not. It just means we all need some help to remember things that are important.
It’s fitting that people would turn to tattoos for the toughest truths. Getting a tattoo is an aesthetic pleasure that takes shape with pain, breaks skin, must heal, and, if infected with the right bacteria, just might kill you. Like tattoos, the truth gets under your skin; it gets stuck to you and is hard to remove. Try to remove it, and you’ll probably have a scar, though of course rich people can get the right kind of surgery to permanently remove truth with very little pain and almost no scarring.
For most of us, though, the tattoos remain. Just like we do, they get old and fade with time. The meanings that the tattoos once had are no longer relevant. Whatever the case, we do with a tattoo what we do with the truth – live with it, figure out how to change it, or ignore it.