Over the last few months, Imarri Townsend’s Instagram account has gotten a lot of attention. The Toronto tattoo artist regularly posts photos and videos of her work, mostly ultra-detailed black-and-white realism, with a focus on portraiture and intricate shading. Townsend is also one of a few Canadian artists who focuses primarily on tattooing dark skin. She told HuffPost Canada she’s worked on people from a lot of different races, but most of her clients are Black. Many of them find her online, either through her Instagram or her Twitter account.
So when she got an Instagram message last week, from a woman who wanted to go to Illustrative, the east end Toronto tattoo parlour where Townsend works, to get tattoos with her best friend, it was all par for the course — except that the woman said her best friend was Ayesha Curry.
“I didn’t know she was being serious,” Townsend said.
She was. And when the woman arrived at the tattoo parlour on Monday, she was accompanied not just by Ayesha Curry but also by her husband, Golden State Warriors star player Steph Curry.
Townsend gave Ayesha a small CN Tower tattoo on her wrist. She gave Steph a circular tattoo on the left part of his chest, over his ribs, with his wife and children’s names in Ayesha’s handwriting.
The couple and their friends were low-key and very kind, Townsend said. She chatted with them about how Steph and Ayesha met in school in North Carolina, but bonded over how they had both lived in the Toronto area as kids.
“They were so sweet, so down to earth. It was really nice to have an experience in that way, rather than them being strict or weird or bougie,” Townsend said.
The sense of camaraderie the couple had with the friends they came in made her feel really comfortable: “It just felt like I was at a friend’s house, tattooing their family.”
It’s not clear how long the Currys plan to stay in Canada. But they do both have roots in Toronto, and were in town for the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
Townsend thinks it’s likely that the couple reached out to her for their tattoos because the parlour where she works is one of few in the area that specializes in dark skin tones.
“It’s hard to find Black tattoo artists, or tattoo artists in general that work with dark skin,” she said. “A lot of them turn dark-skinned clients away because they don’t know how to tattoo their skin.” She got into tattooing after several experiences like that, she said. “A lot of Black people don’t get quality work. It’s hard for them to find artists who are willing to do the quality work on them.”
Black skin isn’t fundamentally different from lighter skin — tattoos just need darker colours and more contrast in order to show up on dark skin, she explained.
But most tattoo artists are white, and many of them don’t understand that.
“They think that because [Black clients] are darker, they have to go deeper for it to show, when really you need to use a darker ink or just make sure that those lines are saturated,” she explained.
“A lot of clients that have come to me have a lot of scar tattoos — and not lightly scarred, but really scarred tattoos, because of people going so deep into their skin.”
Townsend said the number of message she gets on Instagram from people who see the tattoos she’s done show how common the issue is. “The amount of people who reach out to say they thought that they couldn’t get tattoos, they gave up on getting tattoos, just based on the fact that they can’t find a trustworthy artists — that was mind-boggling to me.”
While the industry is largely white today, and the vast majority of shops display their tattoo portfolios on white skin, she said it’s worth remembering that “really and truly, tattooing does come from brown and Black people.”
Historians don’t think there’s one single origin for idea of tattooing, but it was practiced in ancient cultures around the world, including Mayan, Incan and Aztec cultures, in Egypt, and in southeast Asia, among many others. Even the English word “tatoo” comes from the Tahitian “tatau.”
Townsend is glad she’s able to provide a service to Black people who haven’t felt welcomed elsewhere. She looks forward to a time when tattoo parlours focusing on specific communities become more common.
“There’s so many people who are really, working on their craft and trying to make space for themselves in the industry,” she said. “Not only Black people, but brown people as well, and Indigenous people as well.”
“I just hope that people will choose to do better, because it’s 2020. Nobody cares for racism anymore.”