Alum spotlight: Ben Elliott (BFA ’02)

man with hands out wearing hat that says free shrugs in embroidered letters

Ben Elliott, BFA in Lighting Design/Technology, 2002

Imagine seeing Sweeney Todd as your first show…at age six! That was Ben’s experience when his parents took him to see the production at the Virginia Museum Theatre, “I loved live theatre after that.”

Fast forward to his teen years, “I loved hanging out on Grace Street, unbeknownst to my parents. When I started at VCU, Grace was in transition from being where ‘don’t hang out after dark’ to being taken over by VCU.” Brought in by Ron Keller for scene design, Ben almost immediately got transferred to Lou Szari for lighting design. “They discovered that I had a passion for lighting, and Lou became a mentor to me.”

one of Ben’s illustrations

After graduation in 2003, Ben was offered a scholarship for an MFA program at the University Nevada Las Vegas in Lighting Design, so he left his home in Oregon Hill and got a job running spotlights for Coast Casinos, “pointing spotlights at aging crooners.”

While hanging out at the House of Brews, Ben mentioned to a friend, “I wish I’d learned how to tattoo,” and the guy said “Show up Saturday, and I’ll start teaching you.” Ben ended up doing an apprenticeship while continuing grad school. He also worked part time designing lights for Nevada Conservatory Theatre at UNLV. “I was busy and had to make a decision or I was going to get burned out. Most of my attention was going toward my tattoos, so I gave up my scholarship and quit to ink it up.”

His first job on his own was on the strip tattooing drunk tourists, “Everybody wanted dice, playing cards or Las Vegas and the year. You don’t get a lot of originality at a tattoo parlor at 2am.” Four years later, he transferred to work in the business owned by Vince Neal of Motley Crew. Later he was head-hunted by Studio 21, where he still works as Das Frank. That nickname came from a German customer, “who was convinced that I looked like Frankenberry and everybody assumed because my name was Frank.”

Click here to see his work.

All the while, Ben’s been designing T-shirts, creating paintings and alternative movie posters. “The art side has been more lucrative.” With the onset of COVID, he created his most popular artwork to date, a WWII propaganda-style poster, which says “For You! For Them! For Us! Stay Inside, Victory begins at Home” encouraging people to quarantine. It’s been reposted by politicians and licensed by several magazines and is now in the archives of the Library of Congress.

Ben’s illustration in the Library of Congress “Positive Propaganda I”

During one of his sessions, a character artist from Ontario named Sam Gorrie was getting inked in the adjoining booth and “she thought I was making fun of Canadians. I wasn’t.” They married in 2018 and have a five month old (Reggie Lou), plus Ben’s ten year old daughter, Emma, from a previous marriage.

He and Sam actually worked the controversial Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. “We ran it like an air lock with only one person masked up in the room.”

Thinking back to VCU, Ben remembers, “I was in the lighting booth, and Lou came in and saw that we set half the lights at 10%. He said, ‘There’s no reason for that, if you’re going to do something, do it. If you’re going to make a decision stick by it.’” Obviously, Ben embraced that decisiveness in his own career.

Department of Theatre Alumni Newsletter October 2021