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Tattoo you: Sonoma body art gallery back in the ink

Artist Shotsie Gorman needled by outdated ’sin business’ rep|

Of the nine counties that comprise the greater Bay Area, just one is still stuck in the most punishing tier of the state’s reopening rubric, indicating that coronavirus infections remain “widespread.” Sonoma County, with a positive test rate of 5.1 percent, remains in the state’s “purple” tier, requiring all its “non-essential indoor businesses” to stay closed.

Until this week, Shotsie Gorman’s Tarot Art and Tattoo Gallery was among them, shuttered by COVID since March. “After six years in Sonoma, and 42 years of my career, my business may well have to close,” Gorman worried in an email to the Index-Tribune last month.

When state guidelines were issued at the beginning of the pandemic detailing who could continue to do business and how, tattoo shops didn’t even warrant a mention. “When you looked at the list of personal services that were banned, we weren’t on it,” Gorman said.

Soon enough, though, tattoo shops were added to the list of prohibited businesses, and Gorman went from 60 to zero overnight.

The problem, Gorman believes, is implicit bias against tattoo culture. “We’ve always been classified as a ‘sin’ business, along with topless bars, brothels and gambling. They still call us “parlors,” a 19th century term, Gorman said. “As if we’re going to have flocked wallpaper and red lights.”

Gorman’s Tattoo Gallery is modern and bright, doubling as a display space for local artists. No velvet fainting couch, no grubby back rooms. The shop adheres to stringent medical standards of disinfection.

Which is why Gorman felt fairly confident when he submitted a seven-page document detailing his shop’s safety protocols to county and state officials back in March. “We’re running on levels of training that compete with doctors and dentists offices,” Gorman said. “We’re trained in sterilization and blood-borne pathogens, and have contracts to have biohazard waste removed from our properties. This is a 21st century operation. But there’s a sense that tattoo shops violate the mores of the culture, that they are somehow seedy or dangerous to begin with.”

‘I’m struggling with not just the loss of income, but potentially of my 42-year career. This isn’t some hobby. You’re not allowed to make your art or do your work? It’s been pretty devastating.’ Shotsie Gorman, owner of Tarot and Tattoo Gallery

His correspondence either fell on deaf ears or was dismissed out of hand. Gorman never heard a word back from any public official. “Crickets,” he said.

He did manage to get through to various local health inspectors, the same people who evaluate his operation for licensing every year, and says they were as confused by the prohibitions as he was. “There’s a very bureaucratic structure to the health department. The field workers don’t have access to the health officer,” Gorman said. “They’re soldiers. They don’t get to talk to the general.”

Tattooing is an ancient art, dating all the way back, experts contend, to the caves at Lascaux. According to Gorman, a 6,000-year-old Bronze Age mummy discovered in Italy in 1991 was covered head-to-toe in tattoos.

For centuries, Christian missionaries and Jesuit priests tried to ban the practice of tattoo in their efforts to convert far-flung natives. Even in the U.S., tattooing was disallowed in 10 states until 1992, and wasn’t legal in all of New York City’s five boroughs until 1994.

Tattoo artist Shotsie Gorman, right, works on a tattoo on Celeste Winders of Sonoma at his studio.
Tattoo artist Shotsie Gorman, right, works on a tattoo on Celeste Winders of Sonoma at his studio.

So Gorman — who moved from the East Coast to Sonoma six years ago — is accustomed to being an outsider after four decades in the business. With more than 60 percent of his own body tattooed, he has even grown accustomed to the lingering looks.

But he can’t understand how an airborne virus has forced him to the brink of financial ruin when people operating business that present similar risks — like acupuncturists — were allowed to resume services months ago. He can’t make sense of government standards that allowed tattooing in Napa but not Sonoma.

His business was awarded a grand total of $500 from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, and he was denied unemployment benefits until Assemblywoman Cecelia Aguiar-Curry intervened in July. “We would have closed a lot sooner without the unemployment,” Gorman said.

“We’ve run up considerable debt just trying to keep things floating. I’m struggling with not just the loss of income, but potentially of my 42-year career. This isn’t some hobby. You’re not allowed to make your art or do your work? It’s been pretty devastating.”

Gorman’s landlord has been generous, essentially saving the day. “We’re on some kind of gentleman’s agreement. I haven’t paid rent since March,” Gorman said. But that bill will come due at some point, of course, and Gorman will have to cross that bridge when it comes. For now he is just happy to finally get back to work, transferring his complex and original art onto biceps and pecs.

Eager clients have been calling, and he’s got appointments on the books. But COVID has left a lingering mark on his psyche, a spiritual tattoo of a sort.

“It’s been tight. It’s been hard. It’s been a real struggle,” Gorman said.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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