Published on January 16th, 2019 | by Landon Buford0
Body Electric’s Brian Keith Thompson: The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful
Thompson piercing Christina Aguilera:
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Upon returning from a tour in Okinawa, Thompson embarked on his tattoo journey with an unusual introduction: at the hand of a recently released inmate. It was a chest tattoo, and it affected him significantly. To him, “It was electrical – literally.” And from that moment, he was hooked. In 2001, a friend of Thompson told him about Body Electric Tattoo. At the time he was engaged in climbing the corporate ladder of a top multinational telecommunications company. Five years later, before the stock market crash in 2008 and against the emphatic advice of his accountant, Thompson cashed out his 401k and bought the treasured staple of the city.
Thompson has been revolutionizing the tattoo and piercing culture ever since. In an industry rife with seedy establishments and not-so-personable practitioners, Thompson and his Marine-Corps mentality have brought about a brand-new experience for his patrons with a clean, modern, non-threatening environment where customer service is the number-one priority.
Can you talk about what inspired you to get into body art in the first place?
Well I was a Marine in 1992. I’m from Southern California and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. I was in the 1st Marine division, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion and was home on liberty. Some of my friends had some tattoos, and I was like, “Where did you get those?” They said, “There’s this dude in a garage and…” So we go to this guy, and he’s doing jailhouse stuff. Single needle, which wasn’t popular back then, but is now. And I got a “smile now, cry later” face on my chest. The funny story is I went back a month after that and I wanted my last name because in the Marine Corps you’re called by your last name, not your first. And so I tell the guy I want Old English, 4-inch letters across the top of my back, you know like a Jersey. I’m 19, just a baby. So he draws it up. I look at it. I’m nervous, but tell him to go for it and then head back to the unit. Then one night I tell one of my Marine Corps roomies, “Yo, check this tattoo out. Is it straight?” He says, “Yeah, it’s straight.” I said, “How’s it look?” He said, “It looks great, but isn’t there an ‘M’ in your name?” The guy had tattooed T-H-O-P-S-O-N. My name is “Thompson” – T-H-O-M-P-S-O-N. So I swore him to secrecy, and it stayed a secret for a while until one day we were on the 31st MEU – that’s the marine expeditionary unit. We were in the Pacific Ocean on the USS Dubuque somewhere – just left Hong Kong. And I had just taken a shower, had my flip-flops on, towel around my waist. And I walk by these marines, and as I walked by I hear “Hey! Thompson, your last name’s misspelled on your tattoo!” I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But after that, it was over. Two days later I’m on guard duty and I look on the board, and they’d put an “X” over the “M.” It was brutal. They would not let me get over that. From then in it was, “Yo, Thopson!” So that’s how I got into it.
How did Body Electric come about?
I’d gone to prison after the Marine Corps. I was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, three counts of armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with a semi-automatic handgun, and a gang allegation. And I was charged with the death penalty. Now, right before that happened, during my last year in the Marine Corps, I had the “Thopson” covered up. And I went to jail with all these tattoos. I fought the case for a long time and beat it, but took a deal for being accessory after the fact. So when I got out, I wanted to change who I was. I wanted to change everything. I knew that if I didn’t change everything about who I was, I would end up back in there again. And I didn’t really like prison: Too many dudes and the food sucks. So, I was working out at a gym in North Hollywood and there was this guy named Gypsy. He told me about Body Electric. I came in here that night for a consultation and started getting tattooed two weeks later. I started with a cover-up of my chest and then we did a whole chest piece – Japanese dragon. And then we started covering up the back. Five years later, in June 2006, the tattoo artist that was tattooing me told me that the studio was for sale and he wanted me to be a silent partner. He wanted to buy it together, but he wound up chickening out. So, two weeks later, I owned two tattoo studios.
Can you talk about the process you went through leading up finally opening your shop?
I didn’t open it. A tattoo artist named Pote Seyler started Body Electric in ‘92. I didn’t become the owner until July 1st, 2006. I was a customer here for years before that. I started coming here once I got out of prison. When I got out of jail, I wanted to cover up the tattoos – I tried to get them lasered off but in 2001 laser was very new and it was very expensive, and I didn’t have a lot of money. I just got out of lockdown. I didn’t have nothin’; I was on parole. When they let you out of prison, they give you $200 and send you on your way. And I wanted to start over completely. So, I found this place and this tattoo artist who started tattooing me – covering it all up, because I thought if I kept seeing that same guy in the mirror, I didn’t think I would be able to change. I wanted to change who was looking back at me, see a different person and then I could completely change my life and not end up back in prison.
Being a business owner now for 12 years, why do you feel it is essential in today’s climate to own your own business?
Well, I don’t know if it’s for everybody. I hear people telling me all the time, “Hey, I just can’t wait to open a business so I can find freedom.” And I tell ‘em, “Freedom – you’re not going to find freedom by opening a business. You start your own business, and you’re going to work more than you’ve ever worked in your life. And that’s real.” I don’t get much time off. It comes with the territory, and it’s not for the meek or weak. Business ownership is tough. It’s uncertain. You’re going to have good days and bad days, but it also is very fulfilling if you can balance and make it work for you. For some people, you know, it’s better for them to work for a corporation. Not everybody is willing to take those types of risks, you know? I’ve always been a risk-taker, so it’s been very rewarding for me.
Have thought about expanding your business into other markets at any time during your career?
Actually, I have. I’ve been thinking about coming to Dallas. I have family in Dallas – all my family is in Dallas. I’ve been thinking about opening, not a full-time studio, but a part-time studio – showing up every other month for a couple of weeks. And I’ve been thinking about getting into the Chicago market too. I don’t know what it is about that city, but I love it. It’s one of my favorite cities right now.
Do you think it has something to do with the Chicago show “Black Ink Crew Chicago”?
No, I’m thinking about just piercing, not tattooing. I went to Chicago not long ago with Neiman Marcus – recently partnered up with Neiman for some stuff – and I fell in love with the city. It’s a cool place. I like it. So if I did expand, it would be in those two markets.
You were dealt a bad hand earlier on in life. How were able to turn your life around after being released from prison?
Well, I wasn’t really dealt a bad hand. I chose my path. I don’t want to blame anybody or my shortcomings except for myself. I caused what happened to me; no one else caused it. I chose to be with those people. I chose to be in that situation. So I take full responsibility for my actions. And I think that’s what helped me and allowed me to move on and change. I think if you can’t take responsibility for your shortcomings and your failures, how are you going to get over them? How are you going to learn from them?
If the opportunity to own Body Electric hadn’t been presented to you, what do think you would be doing today?
At the time I was working for a company called Nortel – Canadian corporation. I was working for that company from 1996 but then took a little time off when I went to prison. And then they hired me back two weeks after I got out of prison. It was a network company, telephone stuff, cell phone networks. I think I would probably be doing something like that, or maybe, more realistically, I think I’d be dead. I wasn’t happy. I was depressed. I didn’t like my life. I felt like I didn’t have a meaning, a purpose. You know, when you’re just not fulfilled with what you’re doing, and you have this emptiness? That’s how I felt every day. I never liked the job. I liked the company. It was a great company to work for. They paid well. It paid the bills. But as far as fulfilling, it was lacking. But then three years later this opportunity happened, to buy Body Electric.
Can you tell me about your passion for piercing?
Well, that sort of willy-nilly kicked me in the face. I never wanted to be a piercer. I bought the studio as a customer. The only thing I knew about the tattoo industry when I bought Body Electric was how to get a tattoo. So, what got me into piercing was that I needed a job and there was a piercer here, and I started watching him, and I got interested in it. I got my ears pierced here, and I liked it. I never was into jewelry or piercings – I’d have a ring or two on my fingers, but nothing major – but I started liking it. So then I thought I’d try it out. I tried it on my own nostril. I figured if I can do it to myself, I can do it to someone else. And then I just started. You’d be surprised if you’re offering free services how many people will come. Even if you tell them you don’t know what you’re doing, they’ll let you try, because it’s free (laughs). I myself wouldn’t do that, but there are a lot of people out there that will. So I reached out to some friends and said, “Hey, I want to practice.” They came in, and I started practicing. The more I did it, the more I loved it. The more I loved it, the better I got. The better I got, the more I loved it. It just kept growing from there. I would never have thought in a million years, 13 years ago, that I would be known for piercing. If you would’ve told me that, I would’ve laughed in your face, literally.
What can you tell me about the business side of things when you first bought Body Electric?
I knew nothing. And no one helped me. I had no one to mentor me or tell me what to do or what not to do. When you’re starting out as a new business owner, you can make mistakes that you can’t recover from. That’s why so many small businesses go under. There are people out there that thrive off of sucking every little bit of cash you’re making from you – siphoning it right out of your account. One of my first mistakes was signing this contract with this merchant services company. I mean they just gave me a raw deal. It was horrible. I had this contract could not get out of. It took me five years. I was glad I was able to recover from those little mistakes – and they also made me a better businessman. But it’s tough when you’re a small business owner, and you don’t have any type of mentor. The United States likes to say it supports small businesses, but it doesn’t. It supports big business. It supports the big guys, not the small guys. It took me years to start making a profit. I’m barely now starting to reap some of the rewards that I’ve invested in this company. Every year I would just turn my profits back into the company. I lived very modestly forever and put the profits right back into the company – everything. Even my accountant said, “What are you doing man? You’re not saving any money.” Well, I didn’t want to take on too many loans, so I just kept putting the money that I was making back into my business.
Any advice on starting a small business?
One thing is that if you’re going to start a small business, I’d say do it on your own. I wouldn’t even get too much family involved. Take a loan from a family member if you need money, but don’t bring them on board with you. Make the mistakes on your own. You’re going to have good days and bad days. But if you work hard enough… No good things happen quickly; only bad things happen quickly. Good things take time. You’re building a brand, and that takes years and years. You’re not going to post something tomorrow on Instagram, and your business is just going to be booming forever. I tell people all the time, “If you made $10,000 today, that’s great. But if you can’t make $10,000 a day for the next 30 years, what’s the fucking point?” You want to stick around for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. It’s like driving your car: you want to look way out into the road, you don’t want to just look right in front of your hood, or you’re going to crash, hit a pothole or another car. You’re not going to see those hazards coming. Look way down the road. Scan for hazards, and you’ll dodge them in time. I have younger guys come in here all the time and ask me for advice. They ask, “What made you successful?” I tell them it’s like asking what’s the most important part of your car. Is it the wheels? Is it the engine? Is it the transmission? Because if you don’t have any one of those, your car is not going anywhere. So asking someone what made them successful is not really a smart question. It’s so dynamic! It’s so many things happening simultaneously and integrating perfectly that makes you successful. It’s multifaceted. It’s like a cake. What makes a cake taste so good? It’s all the different ingredients balanced perfectly. It’s not just the frosting. You’ve got to have a little bit of that and a little bit of this. It’s a little bit of everything.
What do you look for when you are looking to hire other tattoo artists or interns for Body Electric?
When you’re a good tattoo artist or a well-established piercer, you can take your skills anywhere and make money. You don’t have to stay here. Obviously they’re going to stay where the money’s good: they’re making good money, the studio’s busy, and they like the environment. But not every tattoo artist or every piercer is built for every studio, and that’s okay. I’ve learned to stop taking things personally. The trick to business is if you and an employee don’t get along, it’s nothing personal against you. Even though your business is kind of like your child and you love it like a child, it’s not a personal attack against you. It’s just that some people’s chemistry – their mental make-up, their business ethics, everything – just doesn’t mesh with yours. The first thing I look for is, of course, how many years they’ve been working. Tattoo artists – I don’t like hiring anyone with less than 10 years experience, because my studio is known and people trust it, and the foundation of any business is trust. Once you lose that, you start losing business. Then I look at their overall appearance – how they put themselves together. They don’t have to wear suit to work everyday like I do, but are their fingernails clean? Did they iron their shirt? Do they look like they just woke up? I look at all that. Then, I start asking them about their previous employment. If they start badmouthing their previous employer, that’s a red flag; I don’t hire them. If you come in and start telling me how horrible your experience was with your last employer, it’s usually a problem with you. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s usually the person – a personal thing where you have a problem with authority or whatever. Then I look for eye contact. Are they engaging? Are they social? Are they awkward? Because this business is actually social. You’re dealing with the general public; you’re dealing sometimes with 18-year-olds who are nervous or scared. You don’t want someone who’s too harsh, too, “Siddown, shut up!,” y’know? You want someone who’s a little more user-friendly. And I’ll usually give them a trial – two weeks to 30 days to see if we get along. It’s no harm if we don’t. We shake hands and go our separate ways. Usually, the people I hire stick around for a good three to five years. I have a tattoo artist right now who’s going on eight years with me.
What is the quickest process (and the longest regarding time) that you ever performed and why?
The quickest process is someone wanting a ring in their helix (the outer, upper part of the cartilage of the ear). It doesn’t get easier than that. Cut and dried. It takes longer to fill out all the paperwork than it does to do the actual piercing. The longest process for me is a couple of things: a double-paired symmetrical nostril piercing. Those are very difficult. And one that took me the longest was to match up was a double vertical labret on the lip. It’s a tough one to line up. It’s a curved barbell that goes through the bottom of the lip line out the top of the lip – almost where your lips meet – but a little bit more forward. Those piercings you’re spending most of the time marketing because your body is asymmetrical. But sometimes the simple earlobes will eat up more time than a complex nostril job. Earlobe piercings are bread and butter for us, but it can take a long time to get them lined up too.
What would be your advice for someone who is afraid of needles but who wants to get their ears pierced?
Conquer your fears. It’s all mental. It’s really not that bad. If you get your mind right, you can accomplish anything. There’s nothing you can’t do if you can focus and get your mind right. Don’t overthink it. If you really want to get an ear piercing or a tattoo and you’re just scared of the pain, you’ve got to overcome it. Yes, there’s some pain involved, but it’s not life-changing. I have tattoos on my body that were no fun getting, but I always think about how it’s going to look afterward. I wouldn’t be covered in tattoos if it involved chronic, horrible, excruciating pain. I mean life is painful, but you get up and live it every day. I sometimes have clients who want to experience a different type of pain – emotional or physical. And it’s actually therapeutic to them.