Imma is a sublime artist of many mediums: dance, performance, art direction. You might think, therefore, that her tattoos are an aesthetic choice - part of a ‘look’ - but as she explains in our interview below, tattoos are a way of releasing life’s pressures and finding clarity. As someone transitioning, she illuminated facets of gender identity and the tattooed body that I hadn't considered before. I highly recommend reading and reflecting on her words.

What drew you to tattoos?

I started getting tattoos in May 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. My first tattoo was behind my ear. At that time my grandmother had passed. I didn’t even have my ears pierced and she had these amazing earrings that I loved. I got a cupid holding a heart with a flame and a heart with a flame behind my other ear. So it was representing [my grandmother] holding one earring and me having my first tattoo.

A lot of people can sometimes get tattoos - and I don’t judge it - wrapped around the theme of art or wearable art, and it’s great, but I think I generally fell to tattoos out of desperation, of longing for courage of some sort. I always found myself getting a tattoo when I was really unsure about life decisions or about myself or how I should go about handling things. The pressure would become so much I just ended up getting tattooed and through getting the tattoo there would be, I guess, a release and I would somehow figure everything out. As you can see I have a lot of stress [laughter].

Do your tattoos symbolise something?

Usually I’m always thinking of a concept or idea in my head, but it’s not always certain how it’s going to manifest into a tattoo. So I could say have broken up with my boyfriend and it was really dramatic and that would hold kind of like a little ‘bubble’ in my head. And then all of a sudden I could be really stressed with work and I’m like, I’m going to get a tattoo, and I go to the tattoo shop and I’m like I want a bouquet of roses and all of a sudden I’m reconnecting that to when I broke up with my ex and it kind of ties in. So I always have these little ‘bubbles’ in my archive of shitty things that just comes out as these amazing tattoos.

What’s the difference between being tattooed by a man and a woman?

My very first tattoo was by a guy and it was kind of what I expected a tattoo experience to be; really rough, really aggressive, really hard and really painful. I got my first three tattoos by the same guy. Then I stopped getting tattoos for a while. I was in New York and I met this amazing woman who was a tattoo artist and it kind of opened the gate. I waited for a year and went to her and said: ‘OK, I’m ready. I want a tiger and a bird of paradise.’ She did my chest piece, really big - it took six hours. It didn’t hurt at all and I realised in that moment that she just had a deeper sense of caring for the process and engaging with me in the process and I just felt really connected to her. I found myself continually going back to her for years and years and realised, oh my God I’m getting so many tattoos. I go when I’m really down and defeated. To go there and be in the presence of someone that’s giving you something and they really care about how they’re giving it - you leave on like this high. I found that with women they have this sensibility of caring. I don’t want to sound misogynistic and say it’s in the genes but there’s something about taking care of and making sure that it’s right and really looking after you, and so I find myself now getting tattooed mainly by women.

How are tattoos part of your identity as a woman?

It was funny, when I started to transition I didn’t consider the tattoos as an obstacle, really. I just thought: I’m going to be like this super cool woman. And then I thought, wow, when my breasts grow in I’m going to have tattooed breasts and I won’t have to go through the pain of having my breasts tattooed. That’s quite incredible. But now the more I’m into the transition I’m starting to realise how judged I am right away, especially going to like a gala or benefit and you’re wearing like a Carolina Herrera strapless dress and all of a sudden you have these tattoos and a shaved head, and yeah people can think you’re beautiful but no one really ever gives you the ease of doing that. You’re automatically the alternative person. There’s never an ease about just existing and I find that really difficult sometimes. Sometimes I play into it, but I find that it’s really difficult most of the time when you want to do everyday things. Just going to the gym wearing a sports bra, you kind of feel exposed all the time. But I think there’s power in that. There’s always power in vulnerability, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I think a lot of people are just curious sometimes and they don’t know how to negate that feeling. It’s difficult but I think it’s a fight worth having.

People say that being tattooed invites attention, but so many of the women I’ve met don’t want that.

It’s not a wide-open gate to have discourse about my body. It’s my body, I should be allowed to explore, experiment and manipulate as much as I want. It’s mine. But yeah, somehow the act of being tattooed does kind of leave this gate open of discussion and it automatically categorises you as a certain type of person: that you like leather, that you’re into S&M, that you like fetish - it’s this weird thing, it just throws you right into that bracket. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but for the people that aren’t into, like I’m not into any of that stuff. I think we need to grow and expand our minds a little bit and understand that tattoos can serve a bigger purpose. Think about the Yakuza in Japan, they spend half their lives not showing their tattoos. Think about places in Africa where scarification happens, I don’t think that’s meant to be something that’s up for discussion, it’s a part of becoming.

Join our mailing list to receive beautiful tattoo inspiration in your inbox

© Women with Tattoos. Design by FCD.