Is This How You Feel About Your Tattoo?

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams (which is, as you’ve probably heard, very very good), has a piece in the New York Times about her tattoo: it’s the epigraph to her book on her forearm, a line of script that says homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto, or “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”

From now on, I realized, my body would basically be asking every stranger, “What do you think about the possibilities of human understanding?” During the months that followed, I found myself explaining the tattoo to a parade of strangers and acquaintances. It’s about empathy and camaraderie, I would say. Or else, it’s a denial of this lifelong obsession I’ve had with singularity and exceptionality.

Strangers call her out on the tattoo’s righteousness (“There are people going through things in this world that are really bad,” he said. “Do you understand that?”) and her dad asks her if the sentiment applies to perpetrators of genocide. Jamison comes to realize that she both wants this challenge and doesn’t.

I’d always insisted I didn’t get the tattoo so that people would talk to me about it. In fact, I told myself I wanted nothing less. But at a certain point I’ve had to admit to a desire for contact I couldn’t own at first: It’s there and it isn’t. The script is full of vectors pointing in opposite directions, a statement both aspirational and self-scolding, a desire to be seen and a desire to be left alone; a desire to have my body admired and a desire for my body to need nothing but itself, to need no affirmation from anyone.

I imagine that this might resonate with anyone with a Statement Tattoo, one that carries a lot of personal weight. Do you have a tattoo like that? Or are you like certain others of us, unsure of the exact color of your future sincerity, in possession of a tattoo that was always, only, ever (and delightfully!) a joke? [NYTimes]