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.”
Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz, talks tacos and income disparity
Describe your perfect day in Sonoma?
I drive into town from Santa Rosa and the scenic Bennett Valley Road. No perfect day in Sonoma without Barking Dog Roasters. Then I head into La Luz Center and check in with the staff. Then head out to enjoy the lunch options in Sonoma. I usually meet with community partners to deepen the connections and relationships to better serve our community. On those days where we have evening community meetings happen, I get to enjoy connecting with the Springs residents and then head to the Springs and go to the La Bamba taco truck, where you can find tourist and locals alike.
Where is your favorite place to eat in Sonoma and why?
My favorite place to eat in Sonoma is Mary’s Pizza Shack on
Highway 12 for lunch. It is still affordable and the Mary’s salad
with grilled chicken is great.
Where do you take first-time visitors to Sonoma?
In typical Sonoma fashion, I take first-timers winetasting. I start out at Muscardini Winery, skip on over to the Hamel Winery. Then I end up at Robledo Winery. If the owner Reynaldo Robledo or son, Larry, are available, we head out with one of them to the square for dinner at the Grille. After that, we walk through the square to the Swiss Hotel to sip on the El Verano cocktail. By then the music usually starts to bump at Burgers and Vine, we dance for about 30 minutes and end up at Town Square for a night cap.
What do you know about Sonoma that others don’t?
I spend most of my time in the Springs area of Sonoma Valley. What I know is that the Springs is quickly changing and becoming gentrified. Though many positive changes are happening, I am afraid gentrification may be a result of the changes and the Springs loses its unique identity.
If you could change one thing about Sonoma what would it be?
I’d change the income disparity between those who dine in our fine restaurants and stay in the top hotels, and those who work in them. I find it incredibly sad that the workers serving the wealthiest locals and tourists can barely afford to live in Sonoma. Parents don’t make enough money to cover such high rents and have enough to feed and clothe their children. One little medical emergency or injury throws everything off.
THINGS TO DO IN SONOMA
SVMA Art Night
Every summer, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art invites the community to the hands-on Art Night event, and this year’s offering is getting into the spirit of the Bay Area’s ongoing Summer of Love 50th anniversary celebrations. The SVMA Summer of Love Art Night also tips its hat to the Fab Four and hosts an array of Beatles-inspired fun. Sonoma-based Beatles cover band Rubber Soul will provide the soundtrack, and Sonoma’s Prohibition Spirits will serve signature cocktails, while guests move (and groove) about the museum and engage in a Magical Mystery Tour–styled stroll through several art-making stations. Friday, Aug. 4, at Sonoma Valley Museum, 55 Broadway, Sonoma. 6–9pm. $25.
Tickets include bites and drinks. svma.org.
Sonoma City Party
Presented by the Sonoma City Council and now in its 21st year, the Sonoma City Party is the best way to indulge in and simultaneously give back to the town’s vibrant community, businesses and nonprofit organizations. Everything at the party is local, starting with the music. The evening features popular cover band Riptide, led by vocalist Kenny Goodwin, rocking out with classic hits. Blues-rock outfit Junior Boogie also takes the stage, fronted by soulful singer Codi Binkley and featuring guitarist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz. Modern salsa band N’Rumba rounds out the bill. New to this year’s party, all food and beverage options are provided by the city’s nonprofits and all proceeds go directly back into the community. Friday, Aug. 18, at Sonoma Plaza, First Street East, Sonoma. 5:30–10pm. sonomacityparty.com.
Red & White Ball
Billy Joel once sang, “A bottle of red, a bottle of white, whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight.” In Sonoma, you can choose both at the annual Red & White Ball, which raises funds for Sonoma Valley public schools while offering a dazzling evening of wine, food and dancing. The ball sparkles with a bubbly reception, farm-to-table menu of catered food and the region’s finest wines. Dinner tickets are already selling fast, though the ball also features live music from nine-piece dance band Pop Rocks and late-night attractions that can be enjoyed on their own with a separate ticket. Saturday, Aug. 26, at Sonoma Plaza, First Street East, Sonoma. 5–10pm. $40 for dance only, $200 for dinner and dance. svgreatschools.org.
Sonoma Plein Air
There are few locations better suited for painting outdoors than Sonoma, and nationally recognized artists once again flock to the town for the 15th annual Sonoma Plein Air Festival. The weeklong event is hosted appropriately enough by the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation, whose mission is to support art in education with grant and scholarship programs that have brought millions of dollars into Sonoma Valley schools. This year’s Plein Air Festival will see artists taking over the town to paint landscapes and city scenes from around the region. Special events include the Quick Draw event happening as part of the Sonoma Farmers Market and the art show & sale capping off the event in Sonoma Plaza. And don’t miss the annual Plein Air Gala, with dinner and an art auction, taking place at Buena Vista Winery. The week runs Monday through Saturday, Sept .11–16. For details and tickets, visit sonomapleinair.com.
Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival
California’s oldest festival and one of Sonoma Valley’s biggest parties, the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival is back for its 120th year of commemorating Sonoma’s grape harvest and tight-knit community with a weekend of live music, food, wines and family activities. The event kicks off with an opening-night gala boasting dancing and dining under the stars, with a costume contest to celebrate this year’s theme, “Honoring Our Heritage.” The rest of the weekend features the traditional grape stomp, a light-up parade, popular 5K and 12K races and more. With a focus on local culture and history, this vintage fest is organized by local volunteers and benefits several Sonoma County nonprofits and projects. Sept. 22–24 at Sonoma Plaza, First Street East, Sonoma. valleyofthemoon vintagefestival.com.