We live in an era where it’s increasingly difficult to carve out and find safe spaces, much less have enough emotional energy left over to create them for others. And yet, Imani K Brown has found a way to do both seamlessly, earnestly and unapologetically.
The tattoo artist, illustrator, author and Japanese street fashion enthusiast has built two support communities in the District: one for her customers, and one for her fellow lovers of street fashion. In both environments, she’s built connections with individuals who have accepted and embraced who they are – flaws and all – and now speak their truth through the art on their bodies.
Brown helps tattoo clients tell their stories on their skin, and street fashion friends express themselves and cope with whatever is going on in their lives through fashion. In some ways, these feel like very universal acts of connectivity. And yet, there’s truly not one unoriginal thing about the way the D.C. native chooses to live.
She proudly wears the title of second most prominent Black female tattoo artist in the country, with nearly 20 years of experience under her belt. While she’s owned her own tattoo, art and apparel shop in Hyattsville, Maryland for almost five years, her road to autonomy in the industry had bumpy beginnings. Brown was first drawn to tattoo artistry 18 years ago, when she was struggling with self-harm.
“I was a cutter in college,” she says, “and at some point, I started to shift my mindset to go get tattooed instead of actually cutting. I started saving money, and I promised myself the next time I had the strong urge to cut, I would go get tattooed. It was a great experience.”
She moved home after graduating from Clark Atlanta University, and started getting tattooed in the District. Because this was a new experience for her and a particularly vulnerable space, she was eager to learn more about the art form and possibly consider it as a career track. She was hopeful she could learn from her tattoo artist, who had also just asked her out on a date, so she felt comfortable being open with him and asking questions about his work.
“I thought he would be a safe person to ask about this, and he said he would never apprentice a Black person or a woman. And I said, ‘Cool.’ Of course, that was the last piece he did on me, and then I went to Tattoo Paradise and that’s where I met Chris Mensah.”
She credits Mensah with giving her a running start in the industry, and worked with him for 12 years before opening Little INKPLAY Shop in 2016. Brown started as his apprentice at Northeast Tattoos and moved with him to his shop Pinz-N-Needlez on U Street for 10 years, which she says was the premier shop for dark skin in the city. In that time, she became the shop’s lead artist while also developing a range of business skills under Mensah’s mentorship.
“He had enough trust in me that I could bring almost anything to the table and be like, ‘I want to try this for Pinz,’ and he’d be like, ‘Alright, do it.’”
Brown began traveling to and working in Japan, where she soaked up every bit of Japanese street fashion that she could and started visualizing what her own shop would look like.
“I asked Chris if I could have his blessing in opening my own space, and he was just like, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’ He supported me through it. I wanted to try a lot of the nuggets I was reaching for in business and also in Japan – all the things I was learning and pulling together. I was like, ‘I think this is a thing I can do.’”
While her dream is to open a shop in Northeast D.C.’s Ivy City neighborhood, where she grew up, Hyattsville has been an affordable option and she’s continued to build a loyal customer base that transcends state lines. She describes her clientele as big nerds, sometimes with mental health struggles, and many of whom have become like family to her over the years on their tattoo journey.
“If they’re being vulnerable with me then I’m happy to be vulnerable with them. We end up sharing a lot of those things. That one-to-one vulnerability opens the door for 10 other customers who come through with similar situations, and then we get to do it all over again.”
She speaks fondly of several customers with mental health issues she’s watched overcome hardships and make progress over the years, and others who have become dear friends and built families while she’s continued adding to their tattoo collection.
“I have a customer who was extremely unstable, and we built a relationship being accountable for each other through our own instability and tattooing. When she came to me, she was 18. She’s 30-something now, she’s got a kid, she’s thriving, she’s got a business. Her kid was like, ‘Is this my aunt who knew me in the belly and drew on my face?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah kid, I was doing face paintings on you before you even got here.’ And he’s like, ‘That’s what’s up.’”
She tears up as she shares this story, apologizing with a very sweet, “Sorry, my eyes want to pee,” before continuing.
“It creates amazing trust and kinship among people. She actually just messaged me the other day to say, ‘I’m just thinking about you.’ Those things happen, and they’re amazing when they do.”
Beyond her immense love for her tattoo family, Brown takes her role as a Black female leader in the industry seriously – and what it means to be a Black woman.
“I equate being a Black woman to being like the finest of lace,” she says. “Lace is utilitarian. It’s strong. But it also looks pretty as crap. It’s amazing. There’s no reason to not be able to own that and take up space unapologetically – and do your job and do it well. Take up all the space and don’t apologize about it. If it’s something you’re supposed to be doing and it’s not hurting anybody, do it. Don’t ask permission. Don’t wait for somebody to make that lane for you. Just do it.”
As for the bigotry she experienced at the start of her career, she says, “I don’t deal with those things. I nipped it in the bud the first time it showed itself.”
Her hope is that if the artist ever came back to the District, he’d see her name in lights and say, “Damn, I turned this girl down.”
“That’s the ultimate revenge, and that is the idea of being the finest of lace. That’s literally what I want to see for a lot of women, especially Black women. We have a lot of mislabels. And a lot of them we take on mentally in terms of feeling like we are broken – or there’s something wrong with our femininity or our softness, or even our aggressiveness. And there’s not, so use it.”
This idea of owning one’s femininity, and also protecting it, is something Brown has been navigating for years, and ties back directly to her deep love of Japanese street fashion and anime in general.
“Ivy City is the hood, but in certain places and a lot of times in Black culture, it’s not believed that you would be into things like [anime]. I tell the story all the time of how my best friend and I would trade manga [Japanese comic books] in the alley like we were trading crack. We would meet after all of our friends are like, ‘Yeah, we’re in the house now.’ We’re still friends. We still do art together. It’s just really cool, because it was part of childhood.”
Her love of manga soon grew into her love of street fashion, and she went from dressing up in the style of anime characters and Japanese fashion icons to developing her own take on those styles. She draws inspiration from kawaii anime (her personal moniker and Instagram handle is “ipukekawaii”) and she is often dressed head to toe in pink.
“My style and aesthetic is just all about being able to be pink, explore myself and move around, but also create boundaries. I guess the easiest way to describe it would be moody fashion. I dress for whatever my mood is.”
She sees a corollary between Japanese street fashion and D.C. fashion from the early ‘80s, which makes her feel like she’s reliving the styles she already knows. They’re nostalgic, and she’s enamored with that familiarity. In her words, she jams with them.
Brown is iconic in our city, fondly known as D.C.’s beloved “Harajuku Barbie” by many. One reason she began rocking these anime-inspired styles is so men wouldn’t sexualize her at the tattoo shop. Without even looking at her portfolio or knowing her work, they’d ask for her as their artist.
“The reason I started wearing Japanese street fashion out was to turn people off on purpose,” she says. “Being the only girl [at the shop], people would come in and be like, ‘I want her to tattoo me.’”
She says creating these boundaries actually helped her take up space in a positive way.
“As anime and manga become more mainstream, especially in places like D.C., I’m happy to show up for Black people. I’m happy to show up for people who look like me. D.C., in general, loves kawaii fashion. They don’t know what they’re looking at [or that] they love it until they see somebody who’s just unapologetically [wearing it] in the street.”
Brown’s street fashion community has grown to around 300, with anywhere from 50 to 100 members (pre-Covid, of course) heading out for picnics, fashion walks and other festivities in the District on a regular basis. The goal is to express themselves, but also to engage the local community and expose them to a part of pop culture they may not be familiar with.
While she says this is usually a positive experience, some people do breach boundaries – and she has to step in on her street fashion family’s behalf.
“I’m from the hood, so I want to make sure I’m cognizant of what’s happening around me. I have the responsibility of knowing what I can potentially attract being dressed a certain way. But people forget that, while the fashions are obnoxious and eye-catching, these are humans wearing these clothes. If it’s something you don’t understand or don’t jam with, same as you do on social media, keep scrolling. Just don’t say anything.”
She gets emotional again, as she describes being fierce and protective of her chosen family.
“I really don’t take any mess as it pertains to those things. I grew up in the community in the same way. It’s okay to tell people, ‘No.’ You’re not a victim of anything. Enjoy your fashion. Helping other people create their confidence to be able to engage, that’s always great.”
Looking ahead, it seems the theme of community will only continue to strengthen in Brown’s professional endeavors. She’s currently building out a coaching program for “creatives turning into creative entrepreneurs,” and wants to help locals build their businesses while also pursuing hobbies and ongoing personal wellness. Her long-term goal, she says, is to take this vision to a physical location in Ivy City.
“I want this to be a transformation house, where you can come in on the bottom level and youth can hang out and do manga and the things we were told aren’t necessarily natural or cool for Black people to do. To be able to bring those things back to Ivy City where other youth can see them is cool. And you can go upstairs and meet tattoo artists who are actually building their careers around their own art in a community-driven space where we all help each other. That is what I want.”
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