Underneath the Ink & Pink

Gertie Gebre Photography

Some of the best conversations and connections are not trending or televised. They will never be. They happen when you show up open, open to one another and open to where it could all lead.

That’s how I met and was blown away by an awesome international tattoo artist and illustrator named Imani K. Brown.

My friend and talented photographer Gertie Gebre (a.k.a. Patty) reached out to me one day about her plans to do her upcoming exhibit around a talented tattoo artist she came across. Given my interest in writing and storytelling, she invited me to tag along for the photo session and see what might happen. Tattoo artist. Illustrator. Kawaii culture. Japan. African American woman. Little INKPLAY Shop. Pink. The visuals and words from Imani’s website captured my curiosity. I was officially excited to be a potentially useless, third-wheel, fly on the wall.

I’m not a stranger to planning and conducting interviews for different purposes. But this time around, I did something different. I had no agenda or list of questions in my back (or front) pocket for an interview. I came only wanting to see and learn more about Imani, from Imani. Our conversation had a frame, but would take form on a blank canvas.

It began with lots of pink and the varied sketches, art, artifacts that cheerfully peeked and accented the studio. And from this space, we met and got to know Imani K. Brown as an artist and as a person. Through the course of our chat scattered with friendly clicks from the camera, she entered as an unassuming spirit, and unfolded as a mighty talent with a special magic and beauty to share with the world.

We learned of Imani’s beginnings, born and bred in Ivy City in Northeast, Washington DC. How a gifted & talented (TAG) program in school exposed her to Japanese culture and how she left the first class knowing how to count to 100 and say her name. The public school program was taken away abruptly, but she had been exposed to something that would leave a lasting impression, in more ways than one.

She candidly shared her struggles growing up feeling “less than” for her own reasons, and we exchanged knowing words and pauses of what that felt and looked like. Different flavor but similar feel. The physical act of collecting tattoos began as a way of coping and soon became a release and outlet for Imani’s artistic talents. The first tattoo artist she approached to apprentice said he would never teach a black person let alone a woman. I’ll let us sit with that….and the strength it might take to stay on this path after such an experience.

What was even more profound was the way she eventually studied and mastered the art, and turned it into a tool for healing and empowerment — for herself and her clients. Imani spoke of clients who came in wanting tattoos to grieve their loved ones, but through their work together, left with tattoos that honored and celebrated life.

Gertie Gebre Photography

After that initial glimpse when she was young, Imani’s connection with Japan and its culture and art was never far away. She later met a Japanese teacher who went above and beyond to help her fulfill her dream of one day going to Japan to explore the art in person.

Through her visits to Japan and with tattoo artists there, Imani formed strong connections and respect for a culture that helped her better embrace her own identity.

“More than anything, I’ve learned that black people are amazing.”

As she said that, Imani wanted to sneeze and laugh and cry all at the same time. All the feels and we were right there with her. But we still asked her why.

“Travelling to Japan was the first time I forgot I was black…”
“…To cross cultures in a way that you can start to understand yourself and your worth individually and then your own culture’s worth is amazing. For so many black people in circumstances like where I come from, they don’t have that opportunity. So I need to try as much as I can to bring it back to the people. Just encourage people and say when you get a chance, go outside this country. You’ll find that everything that you have been told, everything that you’ve been fed is false. People are scared to go out and be unapologetically black in other countries because they’re scared that in the same way that America rapes black culture but doesn’t like black people, that it’s going to be the same everywhere else. And it’s not the case.”

Imani’s words gave us all the feels too. I had a flash thought of what my own world would look like if I never had the chance to step outside, step abroad to appreciate the rich “Indian,” part of my Indian American-ness.

As we wrapped up, it felt like we all knew each other for more than a few hours. I left being floored by the amazing talent and heart in this small studio, and in seeing the power of tattooing as a healing art. I also realized and felt grateful for the kind of connections that can form when we are open, and take a little time to see where things take us.

I am excited to see what’s next for Imani, and am so glad I was asked to tag along and said yes.

Gertie Gebre Photography

Special thanks to dear Patty! Check out her online exhibit on Imani here and check out Imani K. Brown’s work here. Worth the clicks.