The following is an interview with Brian Keith Thompson, L.A.'s most in-demand piercer and owner of Body Electric Tattoo. His celebrity clients include Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson, FKA Twigs, and Jessica Alba. Edited for length and clarity.
Prison To Piercing
I did four years in the Marines. From there, I tried to get in with the LAPD, but they weren't hiring [people like me] in '95, so I went and started working for my dad's company in network integration. I got into trouble and did a stint in prison in the L.A. county jail. Life, dude, you never know where it's going to go, but that's how I found this place...
[When I got out], I had some tattoos I didn't like and some guy at a gym in North Hollywood told me about Body Electric Tattoo. I wanted to cover my chest; I thought if I was going to change, I was going to change everything about me. I got tattooed every two weeks — I just fell in love with the place — and six years later, it came up for sale and one of the artists asked me to be his partner. I said yes, but two weeks later he chickened out, so I did it alone.
I cashed out my pension and stock options, gave up my place, and was living at the Marriott Courtyard in Buena Park to afford it. I remember that first night, sitting in my hotel room having a panic attack. I literally gave my last dollar to buy the studio. I had to live out of the trunk of my car and sleep on the floor of the studio for almost six months.
At first, I worked seven days a week, made no money, and got no respect from the industry. And there was no 'big break.' I tell people it’s like climbing a mountain: You’re not going to run up it, it’s going to take time, but once I got to the top 10 years later, I had gone through so many trials and tribulations that I was a stronger climber, a better business person.
I literally gave my last dollar to buy the studio. I had to live out of the trunk of my car and sleep on the floor of the studio for almost six months.
Most celebrities want me to come to them, but state law stipulates that I can't. They’re fun, but they can also be very demanding. They walk in with security and try to shut down the shop; some bring an entourage. I’ve had body guards hit my jewelry case because I made them wait. Most, I’d say 90%, are really nice though. Scarlett Johansson would come in and wait patiently on the couch for me, just like any other client.
I will travel to switch out their jewelry though; I went to Beyoncé's house to switch out hers. If I have a rapport with them, I don’t mind at all. Beyoncé is great and so is her entire staff — I love working with them, some of the nicest people.
I used to get a lot more celebrities in the shop, but now it’s so busy, a lot of them don’t want to come in. I just had FKA Twigs fly from England to pierce her philtrum, she even laughed about how she flew all the way here, but she wanted me to do it. It's so flattering hearing that.
People do really inappropriate stuff; I don’t know what it is, maybe because you’re piercing their body? But I have had girls take off all of their clothes to change their belly button jewelry. I get set up, then I turn around and they’re completely naked... I think they do it just to see if they can get away with it.
A girl once grabbed my crotch. Yeah, that was weird. I don’t respond well to that. She was flirting and thought it was funny and said she ‘needed something to hold onto.' I said, ‘I can get one of the tattoo artists to hold your hand.'
I have actually been yelled at by girls for not looking at their nipples when I’m piercing them, because I only look when I have to. I had a girl say ‘I’m insulted! You didn’t even look at my boobs once!’ I try to make it as comfortable as possible. I want to keep my business, I don’t want to get sued for sexual harassment, plus, I don’t think it’s right to do that. I value women, I love women, and I want their business.
The weirdest thing that happens is people passing out; they get really worked up and then they just pass out. Sometimes the friend that is standing there with the camera passes out — it’s so funny, it’s hard for me not to laugh. You tell the person to take a deep breath and then the friend faints!
Beyoncé is great and so is her entire staff — I love working with them, some of the nicest people.
I only do nipples or female genitals if the girl asks for me specifically, otherwise I have [my female piercers] work with them. I want people to feel comfortable. If they do ask for me, I only look at the breast or genitals when I need to, otherwise I look at my clients in the eye. It's not sexual, it's clinical.
There are many different types of genital piercings for women. There’s the VCH and HCH — vertical clitoral hood or horizontal clitoral hood — as well as the Christina and inner and outer labia. There’s also a really weird one called the Fourchette. It goes from the bottom of the vagina and comes out right before the anus. In my 11 years, I’ve done maybe three, that’s how rare it is. You’d never guess who’s getting these piercings — from professional athletes to moms, there’s no type, some people are just into it.
I don’t pierce the tongue because I think it’s detrimental to your health and your teeth, so we just won’t do it.
Right now, nipples are having a big moment. I've said it before, but I think I've pierced every nipple in Los Angeles — twice. And we are having a second big influx in people requesting constellation piercings; most people are still asking for very small, delicate, dainty stuff in their ears. I am seeing the navel come back — there was a lull in that for a while. Hoops are bigger than studs — even for the navel.
People are also becoming more educated that they shouldn’t get five or six in one sitting. They’re being patient and wanting to work up to it. Do a couple, then come back and do a couple more. It’s easier to heal three piercings than it is to heal seven.
The Good, The Bad, & The Banned
After the first article that Refinery29 wrote about me, I had women coming in from the East Coast, from Houston, all specifically to get pierced by me.
"I get a lot of women from Saudi Arabia and Dubai as well. They will simply pull the hijab to the side for me when I pierce them.
I do 86 people, but it's pretty rare. I just 86'd a blogger, I told her I didn't want to work with her anymore, not to come to my studio. I won't say what it's about, but I am very passionate about what I do. It takes a lot to get 86'd, but if you come in and treat my staff rudely, or start barking off orders or demanding things, I am going to send you right out the door. You treat us with dignity and respect, and I'll treat you with the same. You give me an attitude, I'll give you a bigger fucking attitude right back.
I had someone tell me recently 'Man, you blew up!' and I said, no, "I showed up!' But I'm glad that it all worked out this way, because it makes finally reaching success that much sweeter.
Sometimes I can't believe that I did it. It took a lot of luck, because it could have worked out the other way and I could have not been successful. The fact that I have women and men that trust me to decorate their bodies — it's flattering and a great responsibility. I am having the time of my life.
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