Every Thursday, Gordo sets up a stool and easel in front of Johnny's Saloon, a beloved neighborhood dive in Huntington Beach, and begins to paint. He does still-lifes, portraits and panoramas, and he offers a selection of artwork for sale—stark, often black-and-white renditions of icons ranging from Johnny Cash to Audrey Hepburn to the Wolfman, as well as painted boomboxes, records, metal trays and lazy Susans. “The No. 1 reason why I came up with the live art was for those types of people who think it's a projection or a stencil,” Gordo says. “You think I traced it? Well come on down to Johnny's on Thursdays and see how I do it.”
It ain't easy. Bar drunks randomly approach Gordo to touch, pick, even spit at his work. Sometimes, girls leave lipstick marks; other times, people will punch the works. But Gordo continues painting, slowly creating a cult following that has pop-culture junkies buying his pieces and hailing him as a pub Picasso, a rock & roll Rockwell, a dime-store Duchamps.
You'll see no price tags under Gordo's art—he lets customers name their price. “That's the biggest reward of what I do. People throw out a huge number that I don't think it's worth, but to them, it is,” he says. “The biggest comment I get is 'I don't want to insult you,' to which I go, 'Well, this is how much I paid for it. What do you wanna pay for it?' There are those people that go, 'I'll give you $2,' and I say, 'Well, there you go—$2.' Usually I'll see that person again, and they'll buy me a drink or bring their friend to buy an art piece, so usually, it will pay it forward.”
That philosophy raises his profile far beyond the reaches of Surf City. Thanks to the help of a celebrity-chaser friend, Gordo has painted portraits of such famous people as Slash, Katy Perry and Green Day, and all of them have signed the works. You can see the ones of Joan Jett and Billy Bob Thorton at Johnny's.
He won't reveal much about himself, but the skinny Gordo does allow the genesis behind his nickname—it's ironic, in the way you'd call a fat guy “Tiny.” And he'll also admit to how he first created buzz for himself: by leaving free paintings, with business cards attached, in bathrooms.
“I used to go around, hang it, leave,” he says. From that, everything was word of mouth. “I used to work at Vans, and they have that method of how Vans got big and got their name out there was 'Tell a friend.' . . . I just applied that motto and mentality to my art.”
Gordo continues that ethos of brand building. If someone refers a friend, and that person ends up buying a piece, Gordo will give the referrer a free painting. “I made a name for myself off people telling other people [about me], which is pretty cool,” he says. “There's no website—you have to come to one bar and one bar only to see the art. I don't market anywhere else.”
The love is mutual. Johnny's Saloon owner Johnny Kresimir lines the punk bar with Gordo originals, which bar regulars frequently line up in front of for photo ops. “A lot of people will [say] I'm the Johnny's house artist, which, if you look around the bar, there's so much great art in there,” he says. “I'm just proud to be in a bar that supports what they believe in. Every advice [Kresimir] has ever given me, I've taken and put my own spin on it. This guy's a marketing genius. . . . I don't know anybody who has that opportunity to come and paint at a bar and not [have the bar] take a profit off it every week. I owe that man a lot. He believes in me, which is all you need—one person to believe in you. It can make everything.
“The biggest thing Johnny told me was just to create a cult following,” Gordo concludes. “That's the No. 1 thing you have to do. You'll make your money later—money shouldn't matter to you.”
This article appeared in print as “The Pub Picasso: Gordo paints portraits in between punches and spit at Johnny's Saloon.”
When not running the OCWeekly.com and OC Weekly’s social media sites, Taylor “Hellcat” Hamby can be found partying like it’s 1899.