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Sonoma’s Ugly Tat contest pokes fun at inked mistakes

Bare the ugly truth

The Ugly Tattoo Contest is from 7-10 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at Burgers & Vine, 400 First St. East on the Sonoma Plaza. There are no entry fees or cover charges. For details, call 938-3000 or visit

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For more than half her life, Sonoma accountant Gina Panelli has carried a messed-up tattoo on her shoulder, an asymmetrical bat drawn within an off-point compass.

“You can see where it’s off center,” she said. “Even the little points along the compass are really off. It’s all blended and sad.”

Panelli, now 40, said she will never forget her 18th birthday, when she and her mother visited a Santa Rosa tattoo parlor as a bonding experience and rite of passage. The three-inch, $40 tattoo was meant to declare that she will always find her way back to friends.

Instead, it has come to remind her that things can, and occasionally do, go wrong, even in licensed tattoo shops.

This month it also may land Panelli a spot on stage during the inaugural Ugly Tattoo Contest in Sonoma, a competition that highlights body art gone wrong with laughter and awards. It is being staged by Sonoma Valley tattoo artist Shotsie Gorman, who has a keen eye for tattoos after 37 years in the industry.

He calls the contest a lighthearted way to acknowledge human error and cheer for friends, neighbors and strangers who have been living with ugly designs.

“It’s really about laughing and letting people celebrate their mistakes in life,” said Gorman, 63. The winner will receive a $400 certificate for cover-up work, and runners-up will win prizes totaling more than $1,000.

Gorman and his wife, Kristine, a tarot card reader, work from their Tarot, Art and Tattoo Gallery on Highway 12 in Agua Caliente, where fees range from $65 for a small tattoo to more than $20,000 for full body work. An estimated 30 percent of his business comes from people who want him to cover up regrettable designs.

Some are the result of poor taste, others suffer from bad execution. Still others, like those on hands, wear with time and look smudged, incomplete.

Tattoos initially considered romantic often become the most offensive, Gorman said. “Ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands and ex-wives.” An ugly breakup is hard enough without having to erase a former flame’s name from an arm, ankle or back.

Some of the worst-looking tattoos are designs downloaded from the Internet, he said, especially a popular site where visitors share “pins.” They are “the lowest common denominators of tattoos,” he said, featuring silhouettes of birds and feathers and other “terrifyingly maudlin crap.”

He places them with Biblical quotes and bad song lyrics as some of the most regrettable tattoos ever.

Hiding one requires incorporating it into a new tattoo that is at least twice the original size in every direction.

Jonny Juarez of Santa Rosa, 32, is about 80 percent covered in ink and says he has numerous tattoos that qualify as ugly. The most striking is the “cheap calligraphy” lettering of his hometown that stretches about six inches across his face, spelling out “Healdsburg” under his eyes and along the bridge of his nose. It is one of seven facial tattoos that include a cockroach and a blood diamond, “hand-poked” with India ink by a friend when he was 16.

Although he had it professionally removed by laser, the faded town name is still visible.

“Now in my life I wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “It has brought me nothing but hell.”

Juarez, who restores vintage motorcycles at his Skid Row Chop Shop, completely understands the judgments cast his way.

“I look like trouble,” he said.

Voiceover actress Cat Smith, 43, is confident that her goddess gone wrong makes her a strong contender for the Ugly Tattoo Contest. The winged, bare-breasted version of Isis, the ancient Egyptian with a throne headdress, is about six inches long and extends to the back of her forearm, complete with large, thickly lined Eye of Ra tattoos on either side of Isis.

Smith was 22 when a traveling tattoo artist with a mutual friend did the job for free in someone’s living room.

“At first look it’s not that bad, but when you look at it, it’s that bad,” she said. “The only thing people notice is that I have boobs on my arm.”

Smith and Panelli, with the off-center bat, have been best friends since their high school days in Sonoma. Panelli has five tattoos, and Smith has four. Each has two they agree are ugly. Although they both have tattoos they love, they say the ugly ones grew uglier over time.

It’s a common sentiment among Gorman’s cover-up clients. With thick salt-and-pepper hair, hoop earrings and multiple tattoos, including his wife’s name on one arm, he is a widely recognized tattoo master who started out in New York and once worked for Spider Webb, an industry legend. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he appeared on several talk shows to discuss the art form, including three guest spots on Geraldo Rivera’s program.

Gorman and his wife moved west eight years ago. In addition to tattooing, he is a storyteller, published author and poet, painter and sculptor, with exhibits across the country.

He recognizes that body art is highly personal. Gorman has watched all the trends throughout his career - wizard and unicorn tattoos in the ’70s, for instance - but says he doesn’t hesitate to turn away business when someone is about to make a big mistake.

Tattoos with a hateful message, facial tattoos and downloaded designs are things he steers away from.

“I can create anything you can conceive of, but I will not copy someone else’s tattoo,” Gorman said.

The father of three and grandfather of a toddler, he doesn’t hesitate to get into a stern, parental role when people at any age want vulgar tattoos that will assure them a spot among “the ranks of the unemployable.”

“If it’s something really revolting, I know it’s not the way to go,” he said.

Then there are the young men drawn to “the dark side” of skulls and crossbones and other death imagery.

“They want to laugh in the face of death,” Gorman said. “I don’t fit the bill.”

He prefers tattoos that speak to the beauty in life, that have special meaning or offer healing in some way. He recently tattooed a hummingbird on a woman who lost her father, a symbol of great meaning for her.

Gorman also considers himself an “artist shaman” who sometimes finds himself sharing in deeply emotional moments when a life transition draws a client to his studio. “Sometimes it’s so profound it’s unavoidable,” he said.

His clients have included Roman Catholic priests and more than a few women with upscale addresses, and he is currently seven months into a large, detailed project for a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy. The black and gray tattoo depicts the forces of good and evil.

In the end, Gorman said, tattoos are all about self-expression. “The tattoo should be about aspirations, desires and motivation, not what other people think is cool and hip.”

Bare the ugly truth

The Ugly Tattoo Contest is from 7-10 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at Burgers & Vine, 400 First St. East on the Sonoma Plaza. There are no entry fees or cover charges. For details, call 938-3000 or visit

facebook.com/sonomatatgallery.

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