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Shotsie Gorman: California Poets Part 4, Five Poems

Shotsie Gorman

December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Shotsie Gorman

Five Poems

To Die is Different than Anyone Supposed It Would Be You could taste the fire that night That is what we expected. Flying low pressed down this way. Although we thought our nostrils. would be burned by ammonia of it. There was only our own smell. We became fuel, burning up, Lignin vita black, and fallen heavy on the flames of life. Legs lumbering down the hall of the ICU Hearing the roar of death’s wind. Ever so patient, slowly, gravity pressed, dressed in pale blue with white cotton booties. So slowly blue, so slowly, like sun tea brewed in, a red pot on the windowsill in July. Setting among the interior ferns— blue-green like Alabama mint taste on her lips. lips impossible to touch beyond the respirator She went out, yes, but not like we thought, not like the sun moving down through the thicket, Disappearing in the oceans mouth. No heat lighting—not like we expected. No magnesium flash, or emotional weapons grade phosphorus flare, streaking long healing red scars across us. Stunning—leaving a burned shadow up the wall to be photographed later for life magazine. It was much more mundane in its horror. Our bodies were shocked bland white. Witnessing foam emanating from her lungs. We tear glistened, and waited for, the IC nurse to wipe it clear. My nose bled I wait for the courtesy phone of reprieve to ring. Bring some sign of how to survive the multiplying atmospheres of G force. Seeking some sign—some sign of how to stop the blood from exploding out of my pulsing finger tips, or a way to replace my bitten off tongue. I am sure, on a divebomb roll over like this, jet pilots black out. I considered the meat of all the others like firewood beeping and clicking, in the many filled beds nearby. Fuel for the death furnace. Stored in an industrialized bleak landscape. Stunned again, I watched, flying eyed, line mountain form on the monitors of her electronic metal uterus. I talked on the same radio frequency we used for 23 years--rubbed her feet, sang old do wop songs the only way I knew how, just some of the words over and again. Do-wop-sho-bop-It-seems-like-a mighty-long-time. She on the other hand, lay smileless, smoldering slow, foaming like wet logs in a hot fire. Making steam over this. I signed there on the bottom of the clip boarded page. My signature read, go now it’s ok I’ll take care of it all! One by one each hypocritical switched plug pulled, while Un oiled wheels squeaked in this Hippocratic malpractice insurance morality play. All surrounds Baushus, right angled, plastic and stainless wired and electric. They might just as well have beat her to death with all this alien metal to soft flesh—in this earthbound delivery room hanger. “And deliver me from evil” they all said standing up, then kneeling down. All it took was a ten-letter scrawl of my name to fend off the violence. Bringing Peace, that all the faith in love in the world couldn’t. “She’s going to a better place” they mouthed not knowing a Goddamned thing! As the last rip cord was pulled. I wanted to eject with her out through the metal rafters smashing my skull. I wanted to explode into a Seurat painting of blood and guts on the walls. I just needed to see--something. I don’t think I can ever sign my name again! White forms, black ink. There must be something to witness! I want flames flinging off winged creatures, a slip of soul’s smoke There were no goodbye glances. No, final dances No, here’s lookin’ at you kid Bogie bravado. In my heart ached eye view Where are you? As we crossed the last horizon Orange electronic hills smoothed to Flat lines.

Other People’s Families Yes, we are all gathered here at the table speaking, demotic, no one mentions Herodotus. All a little drunk and disguised as ordinary folks. Camouflaged to hide the growing shame of what we will have already acquiesced to. The bare wired hanging lights are dim and there are no mirrors. No garish, cirrhotic neon sign alerts all those passing through. No Rosetta stone. Moms in alcoholic recovery. Pride in not owning “no books.” Speaking in halfbacks and forward passes. Making remarks about Brazil nuts being; you know, whose toes. “Pass the cranberry sauce will Ya!” It leaves the same color family stain on the living and the dead. “My sons a junkie; do you know his history?” “Well no.” Even if there is a vacancy sign when he sits at the long dinner table. “He did some time in San Quentin.” Perhaps that is why food is piled so surprisingly high on his plate? Albeit, the family won’t admit it—it takes some mathematical and architectural skills to make it all stack that way at Thanksgiving Dinner. When your plate is already so empty

My Consiglieri in Overalls Paint spattered coveralls hide her archetypal femaleness and artist soul. She glows despite the dusk gathering in the window and the dark red orange smudges of paint in a field of denim. “You are doing so well.”, she says; blue, stone flecked, black centered eyes. “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come. You are actually considering yourself, and not putting up with people using you.” Twenty years my junior, my ancient consigliere in coveralls is striding forth in our smallish kitchen. She moves like a Russian ballerina and gesticulates like Isadora Duncan. Her eyes twinkling like centuries of wry Irish women before her. Although her Italian dangled long from her ears and hid under her coveralls. In the last lights of the day I see small brown freckles on her nose. “Fairy footprints,” she told our daughter, who carries their tracks as well. I begin to believe. For the first time. For the first time in my life. I bring blue iced cakes with my prayers attached to them by multicolored flowing ribbons. I place them at the foot of the grand eucalyptus tree, so the fairies can feast. I believe it. I am doing well! For the first time I am taking care of my self, forgiving myself. My consigliere in coveralls comes to me smiling. “You are so lucky you found me.” I believe her.

Swimming Lesson Sadly most men are satiated by standing ankle deep at the waters edge. Or perhaps with short swims, In clear cerulean water under warm golden weather, with feet still firm to the dark earth. True, some learned men swim great distances, but never would they loose sight of land, or break too deep below the tense surface. Although occasionally there are men who learn to control their breath, dive deep, despite a fear of drowning. Chanting, praying, like they were trying to get fire from a stone. Entering other worlds, other lives, smelling of white peonies and tasting of figs. They are learning strange languages, suckling dark nipple, breasts and collecting crumpled artifacts on the shoal of their collaged souls. Gorging themselves on the wisdom of those before them, struggling through viscous blue water, like they were trying to establish a frenzied friendship with a fragrant death. They breech the surface just in time breathe in all things known and unknown again and again. Much later in life, they return to the shore. They sit in circles tattooed and buried in the sand up to their waists for warmth calling out for God in the night skies pin holed with light. They sing sublime songs. It is then marked by scars. Hearts filled with the mystery They scratch in the sand symbols of eternity. That young men find indecipherable As they are running willy-nilly by bearded fatigued elder men with salted lips longing for water. Swimming in their memories Who chant and pray that perhaps one of the boys will be moved by these symbols before the tides rise and erase it all. Like all fathers to sons, they take deep breaths And sing, etching the truth into the sand, only to have it lost in the tide’s swirls. Like good fathers to sons, giving swimming lessons.

How to Tie a Full Windsor Knot in Five Steps 1: Lay the wide end over the narrow end, Tying in reverse. He turned to the funeral director, said," Can you do this for me? My dad always tied my ties." There Are 85 Ways to Tie A Tie, screamed the cover of Yong Mao’s book seen through his grief swollen eyes while his mind reversed the day’s events. There are so many knots, snarls, spirals, hitches, kinks, snags, tangles, warps, contortions, ties to be tied and untied still back there behind. He could not bring himself to pick the book up. 2: Bring the wide end up through the gap between the layover and your neck. Intimacy was standing there, smelling after shave, looking into his father’s chest, at his neck, his chin, bent nose but never to his eyes. He pulled the narrow end of the tie around. It was their time together, his hands weaving a full Windsor knot, brushing against my neck. A fat calloused thumbed Leonard Bernstein. "Full or half?" as if there was a choice, while he conducted. "I’ll just do a Full Windsor for you-- that’ll do best.” He’d answer himself as usual. 3: Take the wide end to the right behind the layover, then forward and up, then down into the gap between the layover and your neck. "You're 26 now. It's 'bout time you learned this, wouldn’t ya’ say?” Nimble lifting, like a spider's threads, Slippery sounds of the silks nap whipping past each other, sounds of secrets never shown in the movements. Entire centuries of history tied in 85 possible ways, our wind blowing the silk in all of life’s directions. We conspired. I always liked that word, its meaning: "to breath the same air." When we breathed, my heart brimmed. It kept rhythm with his rough hands, self-assured, The heart-drum taking me to the far-off places of his untold travel. The movements were like shaman hand-sign or turn signals when the blinkers were on the blink— La Bruja rituals of things beyond my knowledge, A series of elbows-tucked kung fu moves, by the Mandarin Sifu of Windsor, so smooth--like nothing else he said or did. 4: Make a bridge and then bring the wide end up through the back and then down through the knot in front. Patterns blended— angles flew like random particles of stars, moving around some vague dream of them colliding, creating a super particle of our DNA. Not a hint, insinuation, intimation, nor iota, lead, or mention, notice, notion, no not one clandestine emotional release came forth. Grandfather weaved billions of yards of silk, As many as the stars in the entire universe, Sitting at the looms in Paterson, New Jersey, the endless chukka chukka—chukka—chukka sounds of the intertwining apparatuses. Deafening spools, falling silk, cloth weaving: Perhaps his father wove the very silk of this tie, making too much noise for father and son to speak through. 5: Hold the narrow end and tighten the finished knot by pulling it gently up to center it on your collar. His beer breath hardly held forth Prevarications as he had expected— No revelations, not even of the bar-fight curved scar that he carried on his chin, Despite his father's knowing he had always sought the truth of its origin. He wanted to hear something from his dad something about its crescent-moon whiteness in stubble starred nap of his chin.


November 12th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Shotsie Gorman, Tattoo Artist, Poet, Sculptor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: As an artist, your talents are incredibly diverse and far-reaching: Tattooing, poetry, and sculpture, skills which I’ve listed in that order for a specific reason—time. Do you ever think about the unique nature of permanence that characterizes each of those arts? In other words, tattoos live on the fragile existence of the human body, most poetry survives on paper, while sculpture is perhaps the most resilient. Do you ever think in such terms, or does each genre influence the other in different ways?

SG: Well, the first time I received word that one of my clients had passed, I was stunned; he was young and we did more than forty hours of tattooing together. Tattooing is a very intimate experience, and there is always an exchange of life experiences. So I come to think of these people as more than clients, or that ugly modern reference—a “canvas.” We have moved toward friendships. The fact that tattooing is temporary, at least in the long term, has always been part of the appeal for me. Once the actual art disappears, only the residue of photography remains, and will remain after I leave this mortal coil.

The other art forms like painting and sculpture have much more longevity and I always use the best materials available on the market. I struggle to ensure my work will last for generations. I use only the finest permanent watercolors and oils and the surfaces are well protected in the framing, such as UV resistant glass and all acid-free backers. They are designed as family heirlooms. My early sculpture in the 1970s was not so permanent, as much of it was conceptually designed to break down. Still, as I became infatuated with ceramics, I moved towards trying to create more lasting work.

As far as my writing, I have kept journals, notes, and final thoughts, accessible to my family. My works have been published in anthologies, and I also have a full-length collection, The Black Marks He Made. Although I know books are more permanent—they are nevertheless an endangered species in the modern world. The way I see it, poetry is the history of the human heart and experience. So anyone in the future looking to find the path to emotional truth will turn to poetry. It makes me think of how Robert Kennedy responded to the murder of his brother, John: “I turned to the poets to sooth me to remind me of the power and resilience of the human heart …”

DG: You’ve had the privilege of tattooing thousands of people. How did your journey begin, and can you talk about some of the sessions you have particularly fond recollections of?

SG: Well, I tattooed many people after their parents died, after their dog died, after their wife—read husband and boyfriend left. And also after they returned from a trip to the motherland—perhaps their kids left the house or perhaps even their jobs were no more. The stories were of loss and conviction, as well as success or reward, birth, death, the mysterious and mundane—whatever it was, there remained something powerful when people walked through my door to be marked.

Perhaps it’s all those forces sucking individuals into their primal places—their unconscious spiraling to the base, that place where they can return to their rawest state—which leads them to the shop; it’s not a universally accepted idea among tattoo artists. Some of the consensus is also that a sucker is born every minute, taking the worst of P.T. Barnum’s belief.

I see the vulnerable side of people. They walk through the door. I hold them; walk them through the pain. My day is spent carving indelible memories of their joys and sorrows. I kill off their old self and release the new like any shaman worth his salt would do.

A particularly fond recollection is when I became good friends with the local “Santero,” a Santería priest. He was an initiate of the Orisha, a sainted one. I had struck gold. From then on, I became the sole tattoo artist for all the followers of Santería—in the second largest US-Cuban community after Miami. The evening news awoke me to the fact that 125,000 Cuban “Marielitos,” as the refugees were dubbed (after the title of Cuban port from which they embarked), had landed on US shores in overburdened slapstick boats. More than 1,700 were jailed, and more than 500 were detained until they could find sponsors. The majority moved to West New York and Union City, an area known in Jersey as “Havana on the Hudson.” The storm centered right where I stood in front of my shop on Kennedy Boulevard, Union City.

To say it changed the nature of our town would be a vast understatement. It certainly shook up the Italian-American community, along with their power-hold on local government.

The changing demographics began to have negative political implications for President Carter. It was discovered that a large number of the exiles had been released from Cuban jails and mental health institutions; plenty of exiles were placed in refugee camps, while others were held in federal prisons to undergo deportation hearings. The political fallout came right to my door with a visit from the FBI.

One day they knocked—one look at them and I knew they were agents. In any case, they flashed the FBI badge through the windows shortly after.

“You have to do your duty as an American citizen, help us with this problem!” One of them handed me a Xerox sheet showing Cuban prison tattoos, with small descriptions of what the symbols were for—a pitch-fork between the thumb and index finger represented murderers or assassins, and for thieves it was—well, you get the idea.

“I have to help you do what?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” said one of the agents—with absolute conviction of my patriotic duty. We want you to call us immediately if anyone with one of these criminal tattoos comes in to have them removed or covered up. Call us even if you just see one of these tattoos!”

So here I was in the middle of a tremendous exodus of Cuban psychiatric patients and possible murderers, and I was being told to call the FBI whenever one of them came into my shop—where I lived in a small flat in the back, by the way.

“Yes,” I thought, without saying anything. “I’ll call you first ….”

“Yes!” I finally said sarcastically, “Sure! I live among them and they are coming to get tattooed by me. You will be the first one I call!” The feds persisted.

In the meantime, I busied myself for the next month or so covering up every thumb and index finger pitchfork tattoo—doing my part in helping people make a new start. After all, that was my real American duty.

Between the wannabe mobster Italian-American teens ripping off people at the transfer station in North Bergen, and the hardworking Cubans, I stayed busy making my mark on this small world! Not calling in the feds as I spent endless hours covering up Cuban prison tattoos with bright new ones, helping those in Union City start new lives.

My actions made the community believe I could be trusted. I was becoming closer friends with their “Santero,” the Santería priest.

We often shared Felipe II Solera Reserva Brandy and illegal Cuban cigars. The Cubans began to look out for me, cook for me, and invited me to salsa dances. They often got tattooed as penance or prayers, and this allowed me to expand creatively with images like Santa Barbara, St. Lazarus, and the cryptic scrawl of Santería spells and “Virgin of Charity of Copper,” the Cuban patroness. She is non-white and so beloved by Cubans, who describe her as “mulatta,” or being of mixed white, black, Indian descent. I began to respect these people as hard-working, honorable, loving, full of life, music and love. My heart was opened by my new customers’ stories of life and death.

Another recollection is “Birdnan.” Basically, I had a slow start one day with a scheduled “To love forever” tattoo. My tattoo shop had a rather little waiting area, segregated from the work area by a seven-foot-high wall and small door. I placed a curved mirror up in the right corner so I could see clients coming and going from my workstation. While working on this lovestruck guy, I heard someone enter. Then I heard a loud staccato bird-like chirping. I was thinking: It was a bird that found its way into my shop—along with a potential customer. I looked up at the mirror to see who it was. He finally came into view, but there remained this continuous chirping. This guy had quick movements, and I realized his lips were puffy like Mick Jagger’s. They were moving faster than a toll collector on the NJ parkway. First, the sounds were long chirps with pauses, then rolling peeps and chirps came all connected together. A crazy white guy had walked through the door.

He was about thirty, balding, and overly tan. He wore a yellow nylon windbreaker with cut off sleeves and no shirt. He had ripped jean shorts and was walking barefoot, chirping away. I sing-songed: “I’ll be right with you pal.” He smiled and then stuttered into another bird song. I was bandaging up my last client. I collected my fee and walked to the front, all the while wondering if I would have to throw this possible lunatic out the door.

“So what’s up my friend?” I said with half a grin—half thinking I’ll toss him out the door; that was the look on my face right then. To my surprise, he pivoted like the best ballet dancer, then unzipped and pulled down his nylon windbreaker: “I am the Birdman!” And to ensure I had gotten the point, he showed me his tattoo, covering his entire upper back, from shoulder to shoulder, in eight inch, very ornate Old English letters that read: B-I-R-D-N-A-N!

Whoever had carved this beauty of a tattoo apparently could not differentiate an Old English N from an M, and thus produced the “Birdnan’s” tattoo!

“OK Birdman,” I said, not being able, at that moment, to acknowledge the missing eight inch M. “What can I do for you?”

Pirouetting back to front while pointing to a blank spot among the small bird tattoos wallpapering his arm, he spoke, rattling through his nose. “Well! What do you think? I want a whip-poor-will tattoo right here.”

Covering most of his left arm were bird tattoos: hummingbirds as big as eagles, and chickadees larger than crows—no accounting for scale, style, or quality, and they were all struggling to be seen on his rather thin arms. His philosophy of placing tattoos was much like the driving code in New Jersey—if there is a space, you fill it!

He showed me a crumpled magazine picture of what he claimed to be a “whip-poor-will.” I thought it a rather dull brown bird. He almost began singing to me, complete with Jagger-like mouth gestures.

I had no idea at the time what a whip-poor-will was, but later I learned this bird was made famous in folk songs, poems, and literature, mostly because of their endless chanting on summer nights—Eastern whip-poor-wills is their full name! They are easy to hear but hard to spot. Their brindled plumage blends perfectly with the gray-brown leaf litter of the open forests, where they breed and roost. At dawn and dusk, and also on moonlit nights, they sally out from perches to sweep up insects in their cavernous mouths.

Whilst chirping the whip-poor-will’s song, he handed me the photo: “Right here!”

Until then, I had never even seen what a whip-poor-will looked like, but I took his word for it. I was starting to be impressed with the depth of his delusions. Hearing all this seemed quite weird at first. Yet there was something charming and impressive about this kook.

I prepared the drawing and got him into the client seat. We agreed on the price. I placed a print of the bird on the space he allotted me. During the entire tattoo process, he only paused the clucking bip—bip—bip chirping sounds long enough to announce the name of the bird, and then whistle its unique tune.

He then proceeded to regale me with the sounds of perhaps all the birds of North America. Slowly, I followed him on his mental journey, remembering my childhood. No human dialogue was possible here—except when I said: “Sit still! Here we go, and you’re done!”

Just as the Birdman was zipping up his yellow windbreaker with his freshly bandaged arm, someone else, luckily, came through the door. Hurriedly I got up, and went to chat up the next client. As the Birdman began exiting my shop, chirping away with the sounds of who-the-hell-knows-what-bird, he paused and whispered: “I’m the Birdman ….”

My next potential potential client said: “What’s with that guy?”

I was both so flustered and also elated by the life Birdman had just let me experience, I simply shrugged. He pointed his bony finger at my work chairs. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” I approached my work chair in total astonishment—in the Birdman’s chair lay a golden foil-covered chocolate egg! Birdman was a prankster. I realized then that these “outsiders” were my tribe and I loved that guy!

Shotsie talks about “Birdnan.” (video credit: Tim Wetzel, 9 Mile Productions)

DG: In a 2017 article published in the Bohemian, you touch upon the responsibility—as an artist with sensible taste—to talk people out of getting bad tattoos. Can you speak about the most meaningful occasion where you successfully convinced such a client, and, likewise, an instance where persuasion simply didn’t work?

SG: It’s odd you should ask this question. I just received this email from an older client (edited for concision and clarity):

Shotsie …. I grew up in Pequannock, and you did my first tattoo in 1995. I once asked you why the name of your shop had a ‘?’—Shotsie’s Tattoo?—and you told me about the enigma, how since the dawn of time, we’ve felt this indescribable need to permanently mark ourselves, without fully being able to explain why. I will never forget that.

The last tattoo I got was from you in 1999. A week after, I lost my soulmate in a senseless car wreck. I went into your shop days later, with only a few ideas and a need to commemorate her …. I know for a fact how many in the trade would have said “okay, sit down.” Instead, you talked about the rest of my life … and how having another woman’s face tattooed on me might not be the best plan. You asked what other ideas I had.

I showed you my stick-person type drawing, for I am many things, but an artist I am not. I had a two-hour appointment, but you had a one-hour open slot behind me. In the three hours from when I walked in with a picture of my best friend, until when I walked out, you talked me out of a terrible decision, took my concept more verbally than visually, painted what you heard in black tattoo ink on my left calf free-hand, and tattooed ninety percent of it. I left that day owing you cash, as I brought two hours worth and ended up owing you for three. I needed to come back for probably another thirty minutes to have it finished. But the artist inside me—though an artist I am not—said that an unfinished memorial to a life, a truly, truly beautiful life, cut short at 19 was better, that such a memorial was more appropriate left unfinished, as was her life. My mother brought the balance in cash to the shop a few days later after I went back to Boston, but you weren’t there that day. I always hoped it made it to you …. Hopefully it did!

From the time I talked to you while getting my first tattoo back in February of ’95, I began to view tattoos as bookmarks in one’s life. I started by bookmarking who I was at that time, and then began to bookmark things that seemed significant along the way. There were several over the next few years. But then you have a bookmark so significant that it really raises the bar of what it should take to be bookmarked. That was the tattoo you did in 99. And that’s the last time I was tattooed.

It wasn’t until I started looking for you recently that I learned that you lost your wife and mother of your children later in ’99. While my loss from that year continues to seem monumental in my world, I cannot possibly fathom what your loss must have been like. I’m sure you don’t even remember me, but as one human to another, I hurt for your hurt, and I am glad that you have found joy again.

When I decided not to have that tattoo finished, I vowed that one day, when either there was something that matched it significance, or when I could truly make peace with what was lost, that I would get another tattoo, or finish the last one, respectively.

Almost two years ago, I got to that point. And then COVID hit. I couldn’t do anything. I worried that you were retired, because I wasn’t willing to have just anyone tattoo me, and I didn’t even know where to begin looking for a new artist. Hell, it’s been longer since I’ve been tattooed than it was that I went untattooed.

But while I am still in the greater Boston area, you are no longer just a short walk from the Burger King on 23. I would welcome the opportunity to come to you in California, but wanted to make sure you were still tattooing …. I would hate to fly all the way out there to find that you no longer tattoo, or that you turn away people from New England (although I’m from Jer-Z), or that you are on vacation that week. I apologize for the Odyssey of an email, but before I flew 3k miles I wanted to make sure you knew I was coming and why. If you’d be willing to revisit an old canvas, I’d love to come visit.

Regardless, I hope you and yours are happy and healthy. Hope to hear back from you, and again, apologies for the length of this email. Tattooing is incredibly personal to me …. I couldn’t possibly expect you to remember or know any of this. But I thought it was relevant.

DG: Which regret hurts more—a bad tattoo or missed opportunity?

SG: For me personally, I never regret saying no. As far as clients, I suppose they will always regret something, but that’s just my opinion. Here are some of my tattoo-related watercolors, just to give you an idea.

DG: What was the first tattoo you got, and do you consider it the most meaningful, or is there one that holds more significance?

SG: My first tattoo was actually a full sleeve and chest panel Japanese image of Fujin, God of wind, and Raijin, God of thunder. Originally designed by the artist Sotatsu in the 10th century, they represent the gods that created a typhoon which saved their people from sure defeat by the Mongols. As for my most meaningful tattoo, I carry a portrait of Gandhi on my right inner forearm, He’s there to remind that force rarely solves problems, and that refraining from violence is not a weakness!

DG: Let’s talk poetry. There are many great videos you’ve recorded reading your work. Would you like to share one here?

This one is called “Grandpa’s Kitchen Tricks,” written for my Neapolitan grandfather, Joseph Casperino.

A drying Turkey wishbone dangled, casting a gray shadow on the cracked blue walls. Tied to the lights drop string, along with a small grease stained yellow and white plastic pagoda, that glowed in the dark Like an Ed Wood prop.

“Come on-a-my only grandson make-a wish for papa to make-a-lotta’money Pull the bone.” He laughed. Those long red peppers strung together by a clot of brown string hung over the chipped porcelain basin made me sneeze. Or I thought; it was because I had to rise up on my toes to reach the handles that triggered it.

He never pulled. Holding onto his part of the Y shaped bone with Pall-Mall-stained index and thumb. His nail turning as red as my face after a ritual rub with his coarse, three day beard.

Although he pushed roasted garlic onto hard, burnt bread. He never pulled. I’m not sure when it was that I realized this. The fat end of the Y always ended up on his end of the bone.

Maybe it was when he fought with that brain tumor. Trumpeted me in to watch my father shave him in Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

My father pulled the razor over Grandpa’s three-day old beard before he rubbed me with it. By then I knew; just hold onto your end, Just hold on. Let all the others pull.

“Are they all here yet?” “Yes pa” my father choked out. “Tell my boys to come in first, my grandson.” One by one they came soaked, somber. All the brothers then my mother and all of her sisters. Each having their say stood in a Y at the foot of his bed. “I go now.” he said. The fat end of the bone in his hand.

(Shotsie with his Neapolitan grandfather Joseph Casperino in 1954)

DG: You were born in New Jersey, home state of Allen Ginsberg, the poet who would go on to serve as your inspiration. As a young boy, you often saw Ginsberg frequenting your neighborhood in Paterson. Can you recall the first time you saw him and how your understanding of the man changed over the years?

SG: Well, I was actually unaware of Allen until I wandered into a new café in town called “The Bottom Of the Barrel” and heard Allen reading his work on the platform. I was just a kid, 16, and he began reciting a piece about the first time he went down on a guy! All I could think was—this guys is going to get killed …. I expected the audience to turn on him.

I listened to more of his work—the more political stuff—and I began to realize all this took incredible courage. To stand in front of all those people and courageously bear his homosexuality—his intelligence and emotional truth. This opened me up to the idea that it’s possible to speak loudly about your desires, fears—all the faces we hide to survive in the muzzled world of America.

DG: Apart from “Howl,” which poem of his affected, and continues to affect you in a particularly profound way?

SG: Allen’s work always thrilled me, especially as my anti-Vietnam consciousness grew. It’s hard to pin down one piece in particular. Growing up in a low-income housing project—in a very racially mixed environment—I would say I was more moved by Langston Hughes and jazz.

DG: Do you get many requests for poetry tattoos and is this something you enjoy doing?

SG: Never the twain shall meet in 43 years. It’s a separate world.

DG: There may or may not be many people who request tattoos of poetry—it seems, however, you’re one of the few tattoo artists who not only enjoys reading it, but also writes it himself—and does it well, to say the least. Two questions: Would this be a correct assessment, and do you think something like a poetry/tattoo studio could work?

SG: Well thank you for the compliments on my poetry …. The simple answer is no …. For all the reasons one would expect.

DG: You’re a self-taught tattoo artist but have studied poetry with Ginsberg and Mark Doty. It’s hard to imagine that you could’ve been a much better artist if you’d studied tattooing with equally famous personalities, and, perhaps, also, your poetry would be just as strong had Ginsberg and Doty not been your teachers. Do you agree with this sentiment, or would you say that having good teachers is always the preferable way to learn something?

SG: As far as writing and learning—my books (I collect first editions) are my teachers, and often they are my best friends. I have 1,500 volumes, mostly signed literature, poetry, and non-fiction.

I have always gravitated towards art itself to help me find my personal way of tattooing.

DG: Would you like to share some pictures of your art?

SG: Sure, these were done with acrylics.

SG: And these are some of my ceramic concept drawings.

DG: How about a picture of you from the good ‘ole days?

SG: How about this one from 1981?

The Good 'Ole Days

DG: In 2007, you moved to Sonoma, California. How has this landscape and culture affected you, not only from a personal perspective, but also a creative one?

SG: Yes! In a very big way. The Mexican culture and the Japanese influences colliding sent me spiraling—in a good way. It affected my subject matter on all levels. I spent 18 months in Sedona, AZ before heading to CA, and that desert experience radically affected my ceramics.

DG: In an ideal world, would you prefer to write in the morning or at night, and why?

SG: I write more at night but that has more to do with life’s demands, rather than light or dark .…

Shotsie reads his poem “Be Bio Bop.”

DG: Which wisdom is more difficult to attain—knowing when a poem is done or having the good sense to refrain from adding another tattoo?

SG: The two are as far apart as possible in my mind. I happen to go back and rewrite my work often. Although I never dispose of the earlier versions. I realize that each time I approach the older work, I am different—I am a different person depending on the experiences I have had. So, when to let it go? I am not sure precisely when myself .… Let the poem be …. I trust the original thoughts—and as I approach 70 this year, I keep carving away nevertheless. Maybe one day I will learn when to let go ….

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

SG: I have become totally enamored with the work of a man who I believe is the best prose writer alive today. Luis Alberto Urrea. He’s of Mexican-American heritage, and so brilliant, I devour everything he releases.

My favorite is The Hummingbird’s Daughter. As far as poetry I have been reading and rereading Robert Creeley, and I am in love with Margret Atwood’s work.

As far as my own writing is concerned, I am beginning to write a memoir with short stories and poetry.

Also, when I know I’ll be stuck somewhere, like in a waiting room, for example, I always bring along a book of poetry from my collection to read; this way I assure myself of being transported back to our humanity, despite the endless waiting rooms of life.

Author Bio:

Shotsie Gorman is an established tattoo artist, poet, painter, and sculptor. His work is widely known and he has been tattooing for over forty-two years years. He has tattooed members of the Allman Brothers, Talking Heads, and Murphy’s Law, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and Newsweek. He remains active as a poet and “Grandpa’s Kitchen Tricks” won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award in 1998.


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