My Face, Your Ass--or Your Legs, Arms, or Back

Tony Nelson

Brian Kelly wants to live forever. Because he is neither genius scientist nor deity--and therefore not likely to attain this goal--he has settled on the next best thing. He has amassed his very own army and aims to live on through his soldiers. Or maybe it is more accurate to say he aims to live on on them.

Mainly, the soldiers of the Brian Kelly Army are hipsters, the sort you might find on a visit to any number of the coffee shops, bars, and tattoo parlors in Uptown. His soldiers don't attend boot camp or, for that matter, undergo indoctrination of any sort. There are just two requirements for enlistment. Recruits must permit Kelly to tattoo an image of his face somewhere on their bodies. And they must pay him $20 for the service. The image is always the same: Kelly's shadowy bust, decked out in a powder blue shirt and giant sunglasses. "You can't be a king without Elvis glasses," he explains over coffee at the Caffetto Café.

As he pulls outs his third Marlboro red in 20 minutes, Kelly, who works as a tattoo artist at a nearby tattoo parlor called the Painted Bird, muses enthusiastically about the implications of this curious experiment. "I think it's a brilliant idea," he says with a grin. "Why not be forever?" To date, Kelly has tattooed his visage on 26 people. He figures that some of the growing legion will probably outlive him. By his logic, this will confer upon him life beyond the grave, a quasi-immortality.

The first person to sign up and get inked was Kelly's pal, a guy known as Marshall the Count. Later, friends followed, and soon friends of friends, and then utter strangers. Kelly once tattooed his self-portrait on the back of a guy's neck, only later to find his own bespectacled face staring back at him while he was attending a show at the Triple Rock. "It was awesome to see it like that, " he says.

On this day, Kelly has forgone his trademark powder-blue shirt and shades for a black vest adorned with a Clash patch and a deputy sheriff's badge. Lest you confuse him with a megalomaniac, he is quick to point out that the latter item--acquired for $1.50--only makes him second-in-command in a phony police precinct. He also will tell you, depending on when you ask, that he's either 27 or 25 years old. Kelly, it seems, has a robust belief in the value of personal reinvention.

As he tells the story, Kelly first began putting his image in the public sphere four years ago while studying at the Burren College of Art and Design in western Ireland. Initially, Kelly's canvas of choice was not the flesh of friends and strangers, but the streets of Cork. He painted his visage wherever he could, accompanied by the phrase "I love Brian Kelly." Conceived as a guerilla marketing campaign for himself, Kelly declared it a success when one day he overheard someone exclaim, "Who the fuck is Brian Kelly?"

He allows that he received some flak from his art school professors, who wanted him to create self-portraits with more content. Kelly refused to budge. "Why should I draw myself in a dress or whatever? Why wouldn't you project what you wanna be? I was just projecting myself as I wanted others to see me."

Kelly never did see things quite the way others did. Growing up in the southern Minnesota town of New Ulm, for instance, he thought Hermann the German, the town mascot, was the Statue of Liberty. The cause of this confusion? Hermann holds a sword high above his head the same way Lady Liberty bears a torch.

In addition to his work as a tattoo artist, Kelly writes and illustrates his own comic-book series, Francis and the Vegas Tramps, which is about a space-age rock star--Francis--who travels to a place called Spice World, where his band's bassist falls under the mind control of an evil villain. Francis, the lead singer, wears a black leather jacket that, it so happens, is quite similar to the one Kelly habitually wears. Adored by his female fans, Francis--like Kelly--loves rockabilly and Elvis. Despite such overt similarities, Kelly insists that he did not base Francis on himself. "Who wouldn't want to be like that?" he says in the next breath.

Lately, Kelly has become interested in a new idea: nothingness. "Maybe you can strip yourself down to nothing," he muses. "That's kind of been one of my new concepts: nothing. I haven't quite figured it out, but I'm getting closer."

He pulls up his pant leg and reveals a three-week-old alteration to his face logo: The word "nothing" is scrawled in black ink underneath. He starts to think about nothing out loud, talking in circles about being and nothingness as if it's something, or maybe nothing, he's been considering for days. "Does that make it something because it's a tattoo, though? I don't know," he says. "Maybe if I could disperse myself enough, then I'd be nothing. And nothing is forever."

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