Leonard’s Tattoos in Memento
Memento is a film written by director Christopher Nolan, where Leonard Shelby, an overly confused man wants revenge after his wife’s murder. Leonard suffers brain damage rendering him incapable of making new memories; her death is the last thing branded in his mind. Though his affliction keeps him from being able to form new memories, Leonard seeks revenge; to wreak this revenge he must keep notes on even his own life, tattooing himself with important clues.
Told in segments that move backwards in time, the audience follow Leonard back through a series of events, learning in each segment what happened previously, things Leonard has already forgotten. To help him with his search, he has evolved a system. He takes Polaroid pictures, putting names to faces, marking which car is his, which hotel room is his. Moreover, to keep certain notes from being lost or changed, he has an elaborate series of tattoos slowly growing all over his body.
The largest of these tattoos is written right across Leonard’s chest, written in backwards script so that when he stands in front of a mirror, the main fact is there for him to see: “John G. Raped and Murdered My Wife.” Below this is another tattoo that reads, “Find him and kill him.” Scattered across his torso and arms are a collection of facts he has gathered about the case, the points that Leonard thinks are most important. In addition, he has only one tattoo that is visible with clothes in which he is able to remember that he has a problem with his memory because he has conditioned himself to look at his “Remember Sammy Jankis” tattoo. During some scenes that Leonard is talking on the phone to an unknown person, tells the story of Sammy Jankis. Sammy was in a car accident which caused him to get amnesia, the same condition Leonard has. Leonard, an insurance claims investigator, was assigned Sammy’s case. Leonard, who says he “can read people,” was suspicious of Sammy’s condition, because he caught a “slight look of recognition” in Sammy’s eye every time he saw him. Therefore, he ordered Sammy to undergo testing to see if his condition was psychological or physical. Because Sammy did not respond to conditioning, Leonard decided Sammy’s condition was psychological and refused the claim. Sammy’s wife interpreted “psychological” to mean that Sammy was faking his condition. So, she tested him by asking him to give her insulin shot multiple times. He did, and she died. Leonard, after killing his wife, could have gotten the “remember Sammy Jankis” tattoo in order to condition himself to remember the Sammy Jankis story instead of the truth. It is possible that Leonard projected his own story onto the Sammy Jankis story. If this is the case, Leonard has created that lie to keep himself happy.
In one scene in the movie, we see Leonard tattooing himself. With arm space being taken up, he has moved to his own thigh, using a sewing needle stuck into a ball-point pen for a tattoo tool, and the pen’s ink for tattoo ink. This might be a way of marking the skin, it would not produce as solid and nice a result as Leonard is shown to achieve, and would carry an extremely high chance of infection.
In another scene, Leonard suddenly pulls over his car, determined to get one fact noted on his body before it is forgotten. This time he chooses to visit Emma the Tattooist. She adds fact number six to his leg: the license plate number of the man that Leonard is trying to find. This scene of movie tattooing is very realistic, showing the black type she is tattooing with some residual redness to the surrounding skin. The only thing that is out of place is the fact that she is tattooing a very precise and specific typeface on his leg freehand, without any visible stencil.
In a way, the permanence of tattooing is what helps trap Leonard in this endless search for his wife’s killer. No matter what happens, he wakes up every day, faces these facts and goes off on his search. In order for Leonard to live a semblance of a bearable life, he must rely on body tattoos, vital notes, imprinted all over him to assist in his investigations. Leonard’s investigations lead him to believe that the one responsible for the rape and murder of his wife is a man named “John G”. But who is John G? Leonard does not exactly know him either, for his short-term memory loss prevents him from remembering anything that happened after the blow to his head.