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Body artist Brian Keith Thompson talks Star Wars’ influence

Brian Keith Thompson stands facing the camera
Body artist Brian Keith Thompson was influenced by the original Star Wars trilogy. (Pic credit: Brian Keith Thompson)

Piercing artist Brian Keith Thompson is best known as the proprietor of Body Electric Tattoo in Los Angeles.

After serving as a Marine and working in the traditional business world, he’s become an influencer in an industry undergoing rapid cultural changes.

With his distinctive body art juxtaposing crisp suits, Thompson has appeared on 2 Broke Girls, Basketball Wives, Vanderpump Rules, and The Story of God With Morgan Freeman.

Every artist can cite significant influences. For Thompson, a major one was the original Star Wars series—specifically, a certain red lightsaber-wielding Sith Lord. When clients come to him for piercings, they place themselves in a vulnerable position, but this Darth Vader fan puts them at ease and sees himself as a protector.

In a recent phone interview, Thompson shared the impact of the series on his life, what he remembers about a Star Wars-soaked childhood, and why he has Darth Vader in his kitchen.

Monsters & Critics: When did you discover Star Wars?

Brian Keith Thompson: I’m 49 this year. My father took me to see Star Wars in the theaters in 1977. We actually stood in line. I’m not trying to get sympathy here, but that is the only movie my father ever took me to. Never went to the movies with me again. I think I took him to (the prequels.) I took him as a reflection on our trip in 1977.

I fell in love with that movie in 1977. And that’s the only toys I wanted. I played with the action figures. I always identified with Darth Vader. I liked him because I was picked on heavily in school. I always fantasized that I was Darth Vader, because nobody ever bullied or messed with Darth Vader. He would walk into a room and everybody would shut up and get quiet, right?

But I never wanted to get into violence. I just wanted to be powerful and a boss like him. I didn’t really like that he was evil and I didn’t like the philosophy of the Empire…

Back in the late 70s when you played Star Wars, you had the action figures and you would go outside with your friends and create little environments. And everybody wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Nobody is the Terminator.

M&C: He’s the bad guy.

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BKT: So I was always the bad guy. But I didn’t see him as a bad guy because, in the end, he wasn’t a bad guy. He turned to good. He was just manipulated through the anger of losing his mother…

For me and my little kid mind, I saw him as my hero and he was my savior. He was so strong. He always knew what to do when he would walk off that shuttle and the commanders would be standing there. It was his sense of command.

And it’s one reason I joined the Marine Corps after high school. I wanted to feel that authority.  I wanted to be a part of a military structure like that. So I picked the Marines. Darth Vader was very influential through my entire life.

M&C: It sounds like you even before the prequels came out, you were sensing that he was acting more out of pain rather than just evil.

BKT: I’m not a violent person by nature. I don’t want to hurt innocent people. But I would fantasize that I was Darth Vader and I would walk in and everybody would be in awe, and leave me alone.

M&C: That was a safe way for you to process those feelings rather than actually being violent.

BKT: Exactly. When I see these school shootings, and sometimes I read about the individual, I understand their pain, but I do not understand inflicting violence on innocent people. That, to me, is just absurd. And it’s downright evil. Just because you’re hurting, you don’t need to make someone innocent hurt as well. That’s not going to ever take your pain away.

Vader was hurt. He was injured. He was in this suit, but he still didn’t let it stop him. He lost his legs, his arm. His wife was taken from him. She died. And then he was manipulated and controlled, and ultimately came around and saw the light with the son. A solid good man who killed the Emperor. In the end, he was the good guy.

M&C: You felt like the treatment of Anakin in the prequels pretty well matched up with your idea of Vader from the original trilogy?

BKT: Yes, I kind of sensed that… He was just not a bad guy to me. He was what I wanted to do– take all that pain I had and use it as a sense of power. Vader took everything that happened to him– the loss of his mother, being a slave– and then used that as the source where he channeled all that anger.

M&C: Your aesthetic is one of a kind. Did the look of Vader and Star Wars influence that?

BKT: He always was put together. His movements were competent and sure. I love the way he walked off his shuttle. He had somewhere to go constantly; he was never lollygagging. He would talk to you and then turn and exit, because he had things to do.

Before the pandemic, when I would walk into my studio, I would walk in– not like Darth Vader– but with that kind of mindset, like a commanding officer, the CEO walking on the bridge of his aircraft carrier.

M&C: That’s such a creative marriage of the free-flowing form of art and the structured nature of the military.

BKT: Yes. And employees, just like children, need structure, and they want it even though they say they don’t. And it’s nice to work in an environment that is structured, and has a command and control. If you have too many bosses and not enough subordinates, you don’t get anything done.

When you work for a company and it’s overladen with managers, the managers start competing with each other for their jobs, and then it’s just counterproductive. But I was the boss, and when I walked in that studio, everybody knew that I was the boss.

I wear a suit every day, pressed, and my jewelry is polished and clean. Right now, I’m polishing my jewelry, getting ready to go to work. I polish everything about me. You never saw Vader with a smudge on his helmet. You never saw him with a wrinkle in his cape. He understood that the look of him was just as powerful as him.

In the military, you don’t want to have to fight every battle if you can intimidate your enemy before you get there. Alexander the Great would have his riders ride into a city before the army and tell them to surrender. Intimidation saves your energy and saves your ammunition. You can stop a war before it starts just by intimidating your enemy invader. Everything about (Vader) was intimidation.

I always joke and say Empire Strikes Back would have ended differently if I was Luke Skywalker. If I was on that railing, and Vader was to say, “I’m your father,” I would have been like, “Wait, what? Hold on, hold on. You’re my dad (and) you want me to join you, and rule the galaxy together, father and son?”

And then the movie would have ended. When his hand is out and he’s like, “Join me,” I would have slapped his hand and it would have just ended with our hands together… a perfect handshake. Let’s go. Let’s go get ‘em, Dad.

M&C: Is A New Hope your favorite movie, then?

BKT: No, Empire Strikes Back was my favorite part because Darth Vader had more screentime in that movie than any other. It was all about him. And I was a little bit older. I was eight years old when that movie came out. So I could understand a little bit more.

I remember my first ever Star Wars toy was a TIE fighter, where you could push the button and the wings would fall off. And it had the little red light in the front for the laser. It was one of the original toys from the original movie.

I played with that thing just daily– every day, every day, every day, every day. That was my movie. It’s more American to me than apple pie and the American flag. It definitely changed my life as a kid. It influenced me a lot.

M&C: What was your opinion of the sequels?

BKT: I didn’t really care for them. They weren’t my favorite. I don’t judge and I’m not George Lucas, or the artist that created them, but I liked (Episodes) four, five, and six. Those were my movies.

You identified with them. Those were the originals. I was already in my 30s when the prequels came out, so I watched them, of course, and I went to the theater to see them.

I liked Revenge of the Sith where (Anakin) became Darth Vader. When I bought it on DVD, I watched that scene where he becomes Vader so many times. I just loved when they put the helmet on him and it makes that airtight seal. And then his heads-up display in his helmet goes all red, and then he sits up. That was everything to me.

When I was bullied, I never told my parents about the bullying. I never told an adult about it. I never told anybody about it. It was my problem. And I dealt with it. I would never talk about it. I don’t know why.

That was the 70s— “Be a man, stuff it down, don’t talk about your feelings. Save it for later.” Even when I was in corporate America, I was bullied by those dude bros in corporate America. Toxic masculinity has just now kind of started to subside. I don’t see as many toxic males as I used to as a kid. But even in corporate America, I encountered a lot of them as well.

M&C: The bullies grew up and entered the boardroom.

BKT: Yeah. And they’re still bullies. I’m not trying to sing a sad song and say, “Oh, poor Brian.” It made me who I am. It made me stronger. It made me never give up. It made me want to show people what I could do. And ultimately, it made me who I am. So, I don’t necessarily regret it.

But some people can’t handle it. Some people– it destroys them. I was lucky that I was strong enough to compartmentalize.

M&C: That’s the important part.

BKT: Yes, I didn’t give in and I didn’t become a bully myself. And I didn’t want to. If I see somebody getting bullied or made fun of, I always try to take their side– in a nice way, not in a way that would embarrass them. But I always try to take the little guy’s side. I know what it’s like to go through that. It sucks.

You’re always going to encounter bullies. And I think it was Chris Rock that did a comedy special on Netflix who said,  “That’s what we need. We need those bullies. Because they make us who we are.”

A certain type of bullying can help you in certain ways. It helps me to realize how tough it is in the world. It’s a brutal place. And your parents aren’t always going to be there for you. So you’ve got to be able to thicken up your skin a little bit and take a little bit of ridicule. It’s not going to kill you.

M&C: Is there a relationship between that and the way your art expresses itself is on the body? It’s tattoos, it’s piercing. And there’s a certain amount of pain.

BKT: Oh, yes. There was a relationship. I embraced tattooing in 1992. I joined the Marine Corps during a war. I wanted to be in the infantry, I wanted to fight in combat. That’s what I wanted to do. And my father tried to talk me out of it, and I wanted to go to combat. And I think secretly, I was a little depressed, and I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world. I thought a way for me to get out of the world and not look weak was to die in combat.

What is more respected in our culture than a warrior going off to fight for their country and dying in battle? Your family gets a flag, you get this funeral, you’re seen as a hero, and you’re gone. You don’t have to be here anymore. That’s a little bit of what I wanted.

M&C: Do you feel like Vader is a positive outlet for you?

BKT: I have a picture of him right now in my kitchen. (It’s) from Empire Strikes Back, where he’s standing on the platform. He’s waiting for Luke Skywalker. He’s ambushing him to put him in the carbonite. And it’s just a silhouette of Vader with the smoke and steam around him.

People ask me, “What is this?” I tell them, “It’s a portrait of my father.”

And it’s always there. I was telling my girlfriend a couple months ago that I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan. And she goes, “Dude, you’re a hardcore Star Wars fan. You have a picture of Darth Vader in your kitchen, okay? You have paintings of him in your office.” I wanted to be like him, but I didn’t want to be evil.

M&C: You were a fan of the power and the control.

BKT: Yes, but I didn’t want to hurt with it… I’m more of a protector. My last name is Scottish. I wanted to be a cop when I got out of the Marine Corps. I tried to get on with the LAPD. I’ve always wanted to be in a position of protection.

Vader was the best commander. When he walks in on the bridge of his Star Destroyer, people sit up straighter, stand up taller. They are hanging on every word.

And in the Revenge of the Sith, that last scene was him and Emperor standing on the bridge. and they fold their arms and they’re looking at the at the construction of the Death Star– that was that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be a commander like that, with full control.

M&C: But if you had that power and control you would make positive choices with it.

BKT: Yes, yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t be an evil dictator.

M&C: Do you have any Vader body art?

BKT: I do. I have him tattooed on my foot. And my right arm is solid black. He’s not finished. And I need to get a better spot for him than on my right foot.

He’s all over my life, everywhere– in my office, my home. He’s around me always. I’m staring at a photo framed photo of him on this little shelf in my kitchen. A strange place to put him, in the kitchen. But I spend more time in the kitchen than anywhere in the house. When I hang out in my home, I hang out in the kitchen. I do my interviews in the kitchen.

M&C: It’s your safe place.

BKT: Yeah, that’s my safe place.

M&C: Vader is also an image of what could have happened to you had you made the wrong choices with power.

BKT: Yes. You can get consumed by the darkness. It can take you over. They always said, “You have no idea the power of the dark side.” That’s true in life.

And I think that’s why Star Wars resonated with so many people… and especially young boys. It had a little bit of love in it, but not too much. And (it seems like) it was written for us. I’m not saying it’s just for boys. But as a young boy, that movie just spoke to me like no other movie ever could, or has, to this day.

When I hear the title song… come on. My ears perk up. It’s one of those things I’ll never get over. It’s a part of me. It’s in my DNA.

M&C: “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side…” so don’t start messing with it. I never thought of the saying in that context. That’s brilliant.

BKT: It’s like playing with an exotic wild animal. It may look beautiful, and it looks mysterious. And you see the power of it. You think, “Well, hey, it’s not gonna hurt me. I can play with this tiger.” And then it bites you in the neck and you bleed out.

That is what happens to evil tyrants and dictators. They have power for a time, and then they are destroyed by their own power. And I never wanted to be that. I wanted to dissect Darth Vader and be him and talk about him, because I was never tall. I was wanting to be tall and be that powerful guy… I wanted to feel that.

I was like, “Why would anybody want to be Luke Skywalker? That dude’s a dork.” Darth Vader– he’s got stormtroopers.

It’s so funny how you can create this story can transform in your own head. You probably talk to Star Wars fans all over the world. And it’s a little bit different to everyone, isn’t it?

M&C: Everyone applies it differently to their own lives.

BKT: And I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Connect with Brian Keith Thompson on Instagram here. To follow the rest of Monsters & Critics’ Star Wars coverage, join us here.


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