an army of one

How Brian Kelly convinced 23 people to put a tattoo of his face on their bodies

Johnny Cash's decayed baritone-bass rumbles overhead as Brian Kelly sits on one of the tattoo parlor's gray seats, which look like they've been taken from a minivan. Kelly looks bemused. Cash sounds as if he's dying -- and he was, when he made the album playing on the parlor's sound system.

The contrast between the old man's wrenching goodbye and the young man's amusement with the crazy world spinning around him might be obvious, but even the obvious can be worth noticing.

You can't look at Kelly without seeing that the 27-year-old is an illustrated man. Tattoos cover his right arm from elbow to wrist, color much of his left arm and dot both his legs as well as his chest.

Like the main character in Ray Bradbury's collection of short stories called "The Illustrated Man," there's at least a small story behind each of Kelly's tats. None is more interesting than the tattoo of himself on his right calf, however.

He designed it, he put it on his own leg a year and a half ago and he's since convinced 23 other people to follow suit. They're the members of the Brian Kelly Army, spreading out from Uptown's Painted Bird tattoo parlor, 715 W. Franklin Ave., where Kelly works part-time.

It's easy enough to join the Brian Kelly Army: simply give Kelly $20 to tattoo his face somewhere on your body and you're in. No obstacle course to run. No IQ test. No urinalysis.

When Kelly is asked why anyone would want the image of his face put on their body for eternity, he smiles.

"Good question," he said. "For one, it's only 20 bucks. It's quite the deal."

True enough. A similarly sized full-color tattoo (approximately 3 inches long by 2 inches wide) done at a respectable establishment by a good tattooist would run you $100 or more.

Besides getting a good deal, you get to be part of something bigger. Something growing (the 23rd enlistee got tattooed just a few days ago). Something with a philosophy that almost approximates a noble cause.

"When I started [the Brian Kelly Army], I was telling everyone that [the goal] was world domination -- but who wants to control the world, you know? I mean, like realistically. Not that this will probably get that far, but why would you even want to do that?"

Kelly quickly downsized his army's goal to world reclamation.

"To save things," he said. "I'm not insane enough to think I'm going to take over the world.

"I don't believe in government, so that would be the first thing to go, I guess," Kelly said. "I don't think nationalism is helpful whatsoever with anything. All it does is divide people. I believe in human beings as individuals. The idea is anarchy."

Big, black bands

Catherine Rhea has nothing do with global supremacy either, but she is a full-fledged member of the Brian Kelly Army.

The University of Minnesota sociology major said she'd met Kelly only once before she agreed to have the image of his face injected in an ankle.

"Of course, people say, 'Who is that?' And [I] say, 'Oh, it's this guy I meant once and I got his face tattooed on my body.' "

When she met him, he rolled up his pant leg and said that for 20 dollars he would tattoo his face on her.

Said Rhea, "At this point, no one else had done it and I thought, 'Why not?'

"I think Brian, and I'm quoting him right now, is an egotistical narcissist; and I think he just really wanted to see how many people he could convince."

Kelly doesn't disagree.

"I'm an egomaniac -- but since I play that to the fullest extent, I just make a mockery of it. So really, I'm kind of diminishing my egomania."

That self-diminishment of self-love explains the Elvis-glasses photo he used to create his skin logo ("because of its 'king' connotations").

Three or four years ago, the New Ulm native donned the aviator-style specs during a trip to America's Mecca -- Graceland. A year or two later, Kelly was studying art in Ireland, where he began work on a series of self-portraits and began tinkering with the idea of coming up with a logo for himself.

Kelly said he's a big fan of Presley.

"Not a huge fan of his music, but, like, the myth of Elvis -- the American icon that he is. He got the American dream and it killed him. Everyone aspires to the American dream, but the example of Elvis is, it'll kill you.

"When you can do anything you want, your psychosis will manifest itself."

Like Kelly, Rhea is also illustrated. Her tattoos don't all have stories behind them, however.

When asked what the two big black bands on her arm are, she replied, "Two big black bands."

Yes, exactly. What are they?

"That's what they are."

She said she likes simple tattoos and wants ones that won't fade much over the years, as well as tats that make a visual statement.

"It's sounds really clich/, but I really think [tattoos] are an expression of myself.

"Getting the tattoo actually done is really indescribable. While you're getting tattooed, it's like you almost transcend your body when you're in that much pain…it's addictive in a way."

The native of Virginia has been in Minneapolis for a couple of years and has lost any trace of a southern accent. What she does have is a deadpan delivery that comes in handy when she's asked about her Kelly Army tattoo.

"People out on the street think it's someone famous or it's someone they should know. And a lot of times I don't feel like divulging the entire story, so I'll just say, 'Oh, that's Brian Kelly,' like they should know."

It's easy to picture people struggling to recall which movie Kelly starred in or which video of him they saw on MTV.

Ending it now or never

What Kelly wants, besides a few more enlistees, is for people to read more of his comic books.

Last year, Brian Kelly Army Comics published "Francis & the Vegas Tramps," a sci-fi space-monkey-and-robot adventure featuring an Elvis-like character wearing a pentagram and outfitted with an electric pelvis.

He also illustrated Minnesota author Joel Turnipseed's novel, "Baghdad Express," published by Borealis Books in the spring of 2003. The coming-of-age tale about an intellectual ne'er-do-well who finds himself plopped into the Gulf War was well received by critics.

While he continues working on his comics and other art projects, Kelly tattoos people such as 23-year-old cook Nathan Soberg, who has been in the army Army for two or three months. He said he's not exactly sure why he added his friend's face to his forearm.

"I was hanging out with Brian a lot and he kind of just finally convinced me, I guess. I just kind of gave in. I don't know."

Soberg said he doesn't think he'll regret the tattoo in 10 or 20 years or more and that he's down with the Elvis glasses.

"They definitely improve the look [of the tattoo]," he said. "When I first saw it, I thought it was like a young Elvis. I like how it looks."

Soberg's own musical talents -- he plays guitar in a struggling "stoner rock" band without a name -- provides an artistic bridge between him and Kelly. The tattoo they share links them as well, of course.

Kelly isn't sure how far he'd like to take the various ideas and notions behind his army. One moment he said he'd like to see as many people as possible get the tattoo and that he'd like to expand the idea to a line of clothing. A few minutes later, he said he might just end the adventure right now. It's as unclear to him as the future is to most folks.

You can tune in to the continuing saga of the Brian Kelly Army at www.briankellyarmy.com.