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Spotlight on Sonoma

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RORY MCNAMARA
  • Rory McNamara

Art is more than skin-deep for Shotsie Gorman

It's a sunny late morning at the Tarot Art & Tattoo Gallery in Sonoma as Shotsie and Kristine Gorman open shop. Kristine puts out the sign and folds the big LGBT flag over the banner. Lights flicker on, and she gives a quick tour of the gallery and multiple enclaves in the space.

Shotsie is in the lobby speaking of "the place of shining death, I am impenetrable," not describing the shop per se, but the art of the tattoo across history, mythology and fact.

We scoff at death, he says, or at least the young people do, where the tattoo can function as "true armor" in a harsh and uneasy world and even amid a growing and unwelcome commodification of the ancient ritual.

"It is a conscious move into the killing off of the old person," he says. "Tattooing is death and resurrection," he adds, expressing the human-primitive need to mark the body as the whole self transforms.

The Gorman philosophy embraces poetry and the mythology and reverence for ancient traditions and cultures. But he's not putting a face tattoo on anyone, or a hand tattoo—and will talk long and hard to any 18-year-old who might want a big red rose tattooed on the top of their hand, if they are willing to listen.

"Are you independently wealthy?" he asked one such customer. Think about that future job interview, he counsels.

"You're 18 and you want to mark yourself," says Gorman. "I understand that. And I have a responsibility as a tattoo artist."

Once, a young person came in and wanted the George Santayana quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The only problem was, he had the quote wrong and attributed it to the wrong guy, instead of the Spanish philosopher and author.

"'It's not Albert Einstein's quote,' I told him!"

The lad responded, "I don't care!"

"I do," Gorman said. "There's no way I am tattooing this."

Gorman is known in the trade for his oversize portraits and reputation as a renaissance man. Plus, he once got fired by tattoo legend Spider Webb. He has been inking, writing, painting and sculpting since the 1970s, and of late has noted the growing popularity of text-driven tats among younger ritual-seekers—Biblical quotes or lines from songs or some Rumi on the tricep.

"We are looking at a digital culture," he says. "People don't read; they want to become books. I think that is what the text has become." Some may be misguided in their selection, he says, but everyone shares a "hunger for some sense of reality and emotional truth," even if sometimes it's from a cheesy pop song.

Gorman wears slick two-tone shoes and a short-sleeved bowling shirt, revealing lots of tattoos of his own. He's also an award-winning poet whose practice is to put the text to the printed page; a 1999 collection from Proteus Press is called The Black Marks He Made.

Gorman studied with poet Mark Doty and cites the Beat legend Allen Ginsberg as providing the foundational moment of poetry awareness. Gorman went to see Ginsberg as a teen at a New Jersey place called the Bottom of the Barrel Cafe. In those days, "you'd get beat up talking about poetry," says the 65-year-old, citing its "effeminate connotation," and as he watched Ginsberg performing onstage, thought: "This guy is going to get killed."

Gorma describes his father as a stoic policeman. When he was 12, he counseled his son to keep his artistry under wraps. "'Don't tell your friends you're an artist,' he told me."

Ginsberg continued with his reading and the young Gorman—he says he was 13—saw how "real courage is letting your real feelings forward. That place that scares you—that's where the poetry is." In 1991, Gorman published a poem about the death of his grandfather which took the Ginsberg Award in a poetry competition.

Gorman lived in Lower Manhattan in his early 20s and went to the big city with visions of being a famous sculptor. Tattooing was outlawed in 10 states at the time and illegal inking could get a person two years in jail. He was an actor ("I waited tables"), a painter ("I was an electrician") and a sculptor ("I built walls, dry-wall").

He vividly recalls the fear of that first tattoo. A woman had given birth to triplets and one of the husband's brothers decided to commemorate the event with a tattoo of three roses and a snake. "My hand was shaking so badly, recalls Gorman who says he has been "haunted by dreams, blood-soaked dreams" about tattoos-gone wrong. "What did I just do?!"

The Gormans moved to Sonoma in 2007—after leaving New Jersey for Sedona and then trying out Petaluma. The Sonoma Square was welcoming, Gorman recalls, people came up to the newcomers with their newborn. Gorman, a widower, has two older children from his first wife. "It felt right," says Gorman of Sonoma.

Kristine waves out at Sonoma Highway and the various nearby businesses and hills, the great Mexican restaurant El Molino is next door and she heralds this part of town as the "gateway to the Hamptons."

Their shop is in Boyes Hot Springs, an unincorporated area northwest of Sonoma that has long been neglected but is undergoing a major remodel with sidewalks, streetlights and other improvements. The Gormans have all sorts of plans including a couple's night package of Tarot and wine and food and tattoos and art. "Boyes is going to become a hippie commercial zone," says Gorman. "In 10 years, this will be the more useful plaza."

He's one of 285 registered tattoo artists in Sonoma County, but likely the only one who has tattooed members of the Allman Brothers, Murphy's Law and Talking Heads—let alone appeared on the Geraldo Rivera show.

The healing vibe is all-present at the TAT Gallery, as Gorman shares stories of his most-memorable tattoos. In one story, a man and his father were estranged for years. One day the son looked at a newspaper and there's his firefighter dad on the front page, a big photo of him rescuing two children from a burning building.

The son came to Gorman's shop with the photo of his hero dad and said, "I want this."

Gorman shows a photo of the large back tattoo. The image winds up on a firefighter's tattoo website called strikethebox.com; the dad saw the tattoo and knew the work was on his son's body. Dad called his son.

"That tattoo reunited that guy and his father," Gorman recounts with a humble grin.

"That's a privilege, living as a creative person and then it's elevated to a different place. That's what led me to tattooing and that's why I am still in it."

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