In just a few decades, tattoos have gone from being associated with sailors, bikers, and social rebels to becoming a popular form of self-expression among men and women of all backgrounds, ages, and races.
Despite all its hyped-for-ratings drama, the reality TV show Black Ink Crew has raised the visibility of black tattoo artists in an industry where the hands operating the needles are still mostly white and male.
In the case of veteran tattoo artist and illustrator Imani K. Brown AKA ipukekawaii, a racist comment from one such “ink master” kicked off her journey to learn the craft.
“He told me he wouldn’t apprentice a black person, let alone a female,” she recalls. “Once he told me no, that made it more of a solidification that I should do this. Just balls to the wall go for it and see what happens.”
Fourteen years later, she is the proud owner of Little INKPLAY Shop, a private tattoo studio located just outside her hometown, Washington, DC.
A Clash of Cultures
Little INKPLAY looks nothing like most tattoo parlors. Imani describes it as “very pink” – instead of showcasing posters and photos of sample tattoos, the walls are covered with manga (a Japanese illustration style) artwork by her and others, reflecting her love of Japanese kawaii culture.
Kawaii is often translated as “cuteness” – it describes the bright and colorful characters (think Hello Kitty and Pokémon), fashion style, and playful aesthetic that has become a popular rebellion against traditional Japanese conservatism.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Citing Cool Kawaii, a book on display in her shop, she explains a shared need that hip-hop and kawaii filled in their respective societies: “Both cultures actually needed to have a voice. Hip-hop was the repressed voice of an oppressed people. In kawaii, it was a repressed voice for expressive people.”
Imani became interested in Japanese culture as a kid, thanks to a cultural exchange program at her elementary school. The program suddenly disappeared around the time of the first Persian Gulf war, but her appreciation for the culture continued to grow.
Today, it’s one of the things that sets her apart from competitors in her industry. On her first trip to Japan in 2011, she went to Osaka for the weekend and linked up with one of her internet acquaintances, Naoki of TNS Tattoo. What was supposed to be a vacation and meet-and-greet turned into a unexpected business opportunity.
“In that weekend, I got to do a tattoo and plan my next trip to Japan,” she explains. “That turned into ‘What’s next? When are you coming back? So now you’re gonna come back for this convention.’” Since then, Naoki has become her senpai (teacher, mentor), and she’s been traveling to Japan every six months to attend the King of Tattoo convention in Tokyo, catch up with friends, and of course, hone her craft.
Imani has blended her profession and her passion into a style she calls Afro-Kawaii, which she describes as “using the aesthetic and the sentiment of kawaii culture and then draping it in your blackness.” As an example, for the past few years, she has embarked on a personal Kawaii Kwanzaa challenge, exploring the seven principles within a kawaii-style journal.
Within her craft, she says, “My Afro-Kawaii style is starting to come out on dark skin a lot. Adding a lot of sparkles, but fusing traditional Japanese styles with Afrocentric imagery and actually showing a clash of cultures on skin.”
A Healing Art?
Imani’s interest in learning to tattoo wasn’t motivated by money at first but by artistic and personal curiosity. While studying art at Clark Atlanta University – where she helped get the photography program off the ground – she got her first tattoo as an alternative to cutting.
(This self-harming habit recently made news when Willow Smith told her mom Jada Pinkett-Smith about her own history of cutting on their Facebook Watch talk show).
From then on, whenever the urge to cut arose, she’d get a new tattoo. By the time the guy who’d already done several pieces on her body rejected her apprenticeship request, she had almost a dozen tattoos.
“I wanted to know what I was allowing someone to do to me in such an intimate space,” she says, “whether they know why they’re doing it for me or not. I wanted to understand it from an artist’s perspective. I wanted to be able to hold a machine and if I wanted to tattoo myself, tattoo myself. But that hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
Needless to say, she never went back to him. She kept running her photography business and working at a camera shop. A few months later, she met fellow DC native Chris Mensah, who hired her to run the front counter and train at the tattoo shop where he worked.
“Once that happened, I pretty much quit everything I had to be able to focus on my apprenticeship because I couldn’t tattoo at the time that I was supposed to be working,” she says.
For more than a decade, she continued to learn under Chris and followed him when he opened Pinz-N-Needlez, a black-owned tattoo and piercing shop on DC’s trendy U Street corridor that specialized in tattooing darker skin tones.
Imani learned her share of lessons during that time, which helped her to become both a better tattoo artist and a better business person, such as being punctual, taking her craft seriously, and overcoming limited beliefs about tattooing darker skin.
“We’re usually told that color can’t happen on dark skin,” she explains. “I have been very good at exhibiting that color can be done on dark skin. Line is how you get to very ornamental pieces where they stay looking good and ornamental on dark skin. You beef up the line.
“Usually people say take out a lot of lines for dark skin. I say it can be done – it just has to be done with a few alterations and considerations for dark skin. Lace, mehndi – or what people know as henna – just takes a lot more patience, time, and a steady hand.”
A couple of years ago, one customer got loud and rowdy with Imani and the other staff after being told that she could not be tattooed while intoxicated. The incident brought out Imani’s “rough side”, and the reprimand she received gave her the courage to step out on her own. “I’d just outgrown Pinz,” she recalls. “I wanted to be able to regulate who I serve.”
Instead of having a wide-open shop that accepts walk-ins, Imani serves clients at Little INKPLAY Shop by appointment only. During those appointments, it’s usually just the client and her – no friends or customers hanging around. This level of privacy frees her to connect more authentically to her clients, especially those who may be using tattooing as a coping mechanism.
“I attract my likeness: more self-harmers, more people with mental illness, etc., where I can actually show myself vulnerable. People have come in with cuts on their wrists and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, are you okay?’
“I had to do the same thing at Pinz, which is another reason I wanted to open the space. So they can have a healthy space so they can cope in a way that they see fit and nobody else will judge them. People would come in and wouldn’t want to talk about why they were getting tattooed if it was for cutting and such because there are like 12 people in the lobby.”
With intensive therapy and the support of a stable romantic partner, Imani’s own relationship to tattooing has changed a lot. Her last piece was done over five years by her friend Naoki in Japan. “I just don’t need that outlet anymore. I’m sure I’ll get tattooed again, but it’ll be a healthier experience.”
Going forward, she plans to begin licensing her character illustrations, expand IP Brand – her brand coach business for creative, non-linear artists and entrepreneurs, publish manga comic-style books on business development, and building up the kawaii community in DC through her projects DC Kawaii Culture and Kawaii in the Hood.
The latter involves freeing black youth up to openly explore their interest in Japanese culture without fearing ridicule or becoming ungrounded in their own culture.
“I wanna be able to wear Lolita [the old-school, baby-doll fashion style associated with kawaii culture, not the Nabokov novel] and sit down in a drummer’s circle and be able to hit a djembe drum. That is Afro-Kawaii.”
Check out Imani and lots of other black tattoo artists in Color Outside the Lines, a 2012 documentary now available on YouTube. You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @ipukekawaii and at www.ipukekawaii.com.