A rare black female tattoo artist, Imani K. Brown speaks on creativity, racism and craft in the body art world

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One of the oldest and most prevalent cultural practices across the globe, tattooing has become increasingly popular in the African-American community. Yet while this group has demonstrated a growing affinity for receiving tattoos, the number of licensed black artists practicing the profession is much smaller by comparison. Add gender to the mix, and the number dwindles even further.

“I want to believe there are more of us [women], but so far, there are very, very few,” African-American tattoo artist Imani K. Brown, 32, told theGrio. “I know about two in Detroit. That’s it.”

Being a black tattoo professional has placed the artist in a strange caste. “People think we’re on the darker side of life,” said Brown, referring to misconceptions about her line of work.  “That we’re all rockstars and worship the devil.”

Yet, Brown is a trained artist who hails from Washington D.C.’s Pinz-N-Needlez Tattoo, one of the few black-owned and operated shops in the country. To add further distinction, she is documented as only the second licensed black female tattoo artist in America. She recently learned of the first accredited black female artist, 66-year-old Jacci Gresham of New Orleans, upon watching the new documentary Color Outside The Lines, by black tattoo artist Miya Bailey and filmmaker Artemus JenkinsBrown is also featured in the film.

Black tattoo artists such as Brown continuously face discrimination and general ignorance of their history and presence in the predominantly white male profession. To counter this, Color Outside the Lines explores the small, yet rich African-American community of tattoo artists and piercers through one-on-one interviews throughout the country.

Misconceptions about her capabilities are not new to Brown. Although drawing has always been a passion for the former art student, it was a racial insult that prompted Brown to take her love for tattoos (of which she has at least 20) to the next level in 2005 by going pro.

“It wasn’t until a white dude, my tattoo artist at the time, told me he wouldn’t apprentice a black person, let alone a woman,” Brown recalled, “[that I took] it seriously and decided to persue it with more meaning.”

After gaining her focus, the past seven years have seen Brown emerge as a reputable body artist in the industry known for her diverse portfolio and quirky love of Japanese pop culture. She recently took some time out of her packed scheduled to share her thoughts on tattooing dark skin, advising the public on the dangers of “scratchers,” and the popular tattoo request she deplores.

theGrio: Some people believe tattooing a black person is either really difficult, or impossible. Have you heard this before within your industry?

Imani Brown: Of course! Mostly from white artists though. People get told that they can’t get color, [they can only get] red, or they’re too dark for a tattoo. Usually, I just laugh and tell them to look at my portfolios. It’s easier to let people see things on similar skin, than to try and explain it. They see that we’re specialists in black skin and they can decide for themselves from there.

Are there some designs or colors that turn out differently on black clients in terms of fading or loss of detail?

Well, black skin has a varying gradiation, more than other skin types. So of course there will be things that turn out better or worse. The trick with black skin is knowing where to stop, in terms of design and detail. A very, very dark black person can’t accommodate for my fine lines like someone more “caramel.” Meanwhile, someone “caramel” with super dry skin can’t accommodate that style either past a certain size. For my fine line detail, there’s no telling the outcome. Things could bleed together, all types of blowouts. So it really depends on where people fall in that varying skin chart and also the condition of their skin for certain styles, at least.

Unlicensed tattoo artists are becoming more prevalent these days thanks to social media. What are your thoughts on these individuals?

They’re scratchers and they should either step their game up or stop dealing in skin. It’s not fair to those people whose skin they’re butchering.