Although it may seem like piercing is as simple as sticking a needle through someone’s skin, anyone who’s been doing it for a while can tell you exactly how much of an art form that is.
There’s a big difference between your friend piercing your earlobe in the bathroom during high school lunch and getting pierced by a professional at a reputable shop. To Brian Keith Thompson of Hollywood’s Body Electric Tattoo & Piercing, that difference is similar to hiring an interior designer rather than just throwing things up on the walls of your home.
“I don’t feel like I’m an artist, I feel like I’m a decorator,” Thompson says. “I’m taking a piece of jewelry which someone created — a piece of art — and installing it on the body. It takes a good eye. I just have an eye for decorating. I’m a straight man, and I know how to decorate. Where the fuck did that come from? It’s like an anomaly.”
When the 43-year-old purchased Body Electric about a decade ago, he thought his design skills would be put to use only in decorating the eccentric shop. He’d been a client of the shop for years, and had a mostly successful life in the corporate engineering world — save for a stint in prison. But owning a tattoo shop without being in the industry is a bit sacrilegious to people who've devoted their lives to the art.
Many tattooers believe that non-tattooing shop owners — primarily those who are in it only for the money — will ultimately be the downfall of the industry’s current popularity boom. Not wanting to fall into that category himself, Thompson knew that he’d be much better off picking up a piercing needle than a tattooing machine.
“When I bought [Body Electric], nobody really respected me,” Thompson says. “The owner at the time told me that I needed a job if I wanted their respect, so she handed me a needle and forced me to pierce my nose right here. I figured out I was good at it, so I started watching one of the resident piercers. He wouldn’t show me anything, but they can’t stop you from watching if you’re the owner. The great thing about being the owner was that if I fucked something else, I’d just give it to them for free.”
But piercing seems to be working out for Thompson so far. Over the last several years, the self-taught decorator has become one of the top piercers in L.A. Aside from Body Electric being a destination for tattoo collectors and piercing aficionados alike, Thompson has added quite a few famous names to his clientele. From Beyoncé to Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson, Thompson’s pierced a wide variety of Hollywood types. For him, a client is a client, and it’s more about how they treat him than how famous they are.
“However you walk in is how I’m going to treat you,” Thompson says. “If you’re standoffish, I’m going to be standoffish. If you’re funny, I’ll be funny. If you’re scared, I’ll try to cheer you up. Some of [the celebrities] are great and some of them aren’t. It’s cool, but I like piercing some of the bloggers better because they get way more into it. The big names are just kind of like whatever, but it’s more fun when people get into it.”
It’s the connection with his clients that keeps Thompson busy week after week. His big personality and top-notch customer service make him popular with new and returning clients alike, and his preference for doing tasteful and stylish piercings rather than the strange and gratuitous opens his abilities to a wide range of people — not just those who want a Prince Albert or softball-sized earlobes.
“I started doing smaller stuff and more delicate stuff,” Thompson says. “I don’t like doing extreme things. I like doing normal things like the ear, the nose and the navel. I have other piercers who do all the genital stuff and crazy large-gauge stuff, but I’m not into it. If I wanted to cut someone, I’d be a plastic surgeon and really get paid for it.”
Things weren’t always full schedules and red-carpet piercing clients for Thompson, though. After sinking every dime he had into buying Body Electric, the piercer was so broke that he couldn’t afford a place to sleep. Instead, Thompson would roll out a sleeping bag in the back room of the shop and call it home for nights at a time. As a former Marine, it wasn’t the roughest living situation Thompson had ever encountered, but it wasn’t exactly how he’d drawn things up either.
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No matter how rough things got, Thompson’s always played by his own rules with Body Electric. Beyond the state laws of running a tattoo and piercing shop, the Texas native never had any of the old-school “industry rules” that so many other parlors follow. After getting picked on in Mexican neighborhoods in L.A. since the age of 12, the occasional death threat from an unhappy competitor isn’t going to scare him away from doing his own thing.
“I kept hearing about all of these rules in the industry, and people would say I wasn’t playing by the rules,” Thompson says. “I kept wondering ‘Why are there rules?’ or ‘Where is this book of rules?’ There are no fucking rules, you just do it. If it doesn’t work out, you just take it out. As long as you’re not hurting someone physically, it’s cool.”
Body Electric Tattoo & Piercing, 7274 Melrose Ave., (323) 954-0408.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect that while Rihanna has been a customer, Thompson has not pierced her.