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Hidden Gems: Meet Imani K. Brown of Little INKPLAY Shop

Today we’d like to introduce you to Imani K. Brown.

Hi Imani, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers.
I have been an artist my entire life, no exaggeration – my grandmother, mom, and brothers are artists and creatives.

However, I found tattoos in my darkest moments and started getting tattooed to curb self-harming. One day, I asked the guy who used to tattoo me if he’d teach me how to tattoo. I just wanted to know what I was allowing someone else to do to me while in School a vulnerable state but had no desire to become a tattoo artist – as a hobby or trade.

He was a white guy and had just asked me out weeks prior to my request. Though I declined he was always very courteous, still as if nothing happened so I thought I was ‘safe’. Except when I asked about an apprenticeship, he said he wouldn’t teach a Black person let alone a woman. NO! I wasn’t offended. I love an open racist. It tells me where my Blackness is safe and after the session – tattoo number 4 with him – I never returned. It was that simple.

Later, while out celebrating a photography contract I’d just landed through my then business, Creative Purpose Photography, I ended up getting a tattoo on my hand. The shop I’ll leave unnamed, but there were 2 Black artists, Diamond and Chris. I was referred to Diamond, but he was busy and he passed me to Chris. At some point, I broke my number one rule as an artist to let your portfolio speak for you and I started inquiring about being his apprentice.

I told him how amazing I was, how he wouldn’t be sorry, how amazing I am – wait I already said that part, but you get it.

Chris asked me to come to the shop and gave me his card and a prompt time to arrive. I treated it as if I was going for the corporate gig of my dreams – arrived early with a portfolio in hand. I even dressed the part – artist chic inspired by what I thought a cool tattoo “shop girl” would look like. I was extra careful to stay away from business or business casual because I knew in my heart of hearts that would be doing way too much.

Chris gave me a one-week trial run with some duties, shop chores, and homework on tattoo things to study and report on… and the rest was history.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
It most certainly has not been a smooth road. A lot of learning tattoo and entrepreneurship, in general, is all a big ol’ learning lesson – learning the things that serve you, unlearning the things that don’t serve you, and learning YOU in general.

The smoothest part of my journey has been holding my space as the queen among kings. Being raised the only girl and the youngest came in handy as the only girl and little sister figure of the shop.

Other than that, there were struggles with learning or setting standards with customer care, managing artists, and their fragile AF ego. And I say that in jest because I am also one of those artists and while managing an entire crew…
I also had to learn to self-manage.

In the industry, being Black for the era of tattoo that I come up in wasn’t easy either. Black artists were very few and far between. In fact, I’m the 2nd most prominent Black female tattoo artist in US history because of my timely journey. The First Lady, Jacci Gresham, comes over 20 years before me. I am from the Myspace era before Facebook was even open to the public. AOL chat rooms and Black Planet were still popping up.

Tattoo conventions and related spaces seemed unfriendly. A culture of art, that was embedded in my DNA and rightful knowledge to me, was being kept away and the gatekeepers were all white men.

Every so often though I found myself bonding with artists over simply being degenerates, in a degenerate sport that helped change peoples’ lives, while simultaneously crushing the hearts and expectations of our families.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
In my tattoo journey, I started meeting a lot of people like me – people who were active self-harmers, manic-depressives, ADD folks, dysmorphic friends, etc. And tattoos became a healthy way to trauma bond for both myself and many clients who sat in my chair. I know we say trauma bonding shouldn’t be a thing, but it is. And it’s what you do with it that counts. IMHO

I felt that the shop I was raised in, Pinz-N-Needlez Tattoo, was to open a space to guarantee a safe space for such vulnerability. These people deserved a truly safe space and inspired my biz baby, Little INKPLAY Shop® where we specialize in tattoo therapy – a peer-to-peer healing modality that helps creative misfits uncover their true self-image and reconnect with themselves.

It’s not just any old tattoo shop or private studio. It’s a whole intentional VIBE! The studio is alive as a touch-and-feel space that helps trigger any or all five senses. Consultations are required so that we can learn how to meet any unmet emotional needs of our clients. Some people need more attention and need artists to slow down and let them know that their concerns are heard; while others need to be guided with over-explanation to ease anxiety. Whatever people’s jams, we have space to accommodate their needs so that they get the tattoo experience they DESERVE.

As the founder and curator of the pace, I’m most proud that my hobbies and love come through in this full Japonisme brand, as a kawaii culture hub. Here I can not only have ways to externally trigger my own happiness, but I can also share that sunshine with each person who visits by providing a healthy escape from the mundane life, in our little magical world.

We love a happy client – from dancing in the mirror to referring friends to even working together on other creative projects.

There is a Japanese saying in customer service, okiyakusama wa kamisama desu. It means the customer is god or an honored guest. There’s even an anime about it. And while “the customer is always right” is absolutely NOT a thing in the tattoo, we like to treat our customers as honored guests, spoiling them in ways unheard of in this degenerate sport of tattoo.

We’d love to hear about any fond memories you have from when you were growing up.
My favorite childhood memory was captured in a photo – me sitting on my grandma’s porch crying with crayons in hand MAD that I couldn’t go to my mom’s art class with her.

She was pursuing her Associate’s degree at Pitt Community College, in Greenville, NC. When my brothers or grandma weren’t available to watch me, she would take me with her. It was always fun – limitless paper, crayons, and random adults who would give me cool things to make more art with.

I’m almost positive my art wasn’t the greatest, but I think it was nurturing for me.

I was 2-3 years old. And I remember these times more vividly than my time at daycare or preschool… and that was age 5.


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