Henna Tattooing

Henna tattooing, recently made popular by Madonna, Demi Moore and other performers, has become all the rage in America and Great Britain. With a mixture of simple paste and a little creativity, it is possible to imprint the surface of your skin with a masterpiece that fades away gradually in up to six weeks. “Henna tattoos look nice and you don’t have to be stuck with it the rest of your life,” said Eve Day, an artist who applies Henna tattoos professionally.

Henna, otherwise known as mendhi, is a tall, shrub-like plant that grows in hot, dry climates. It is grown mostly in Sudan, Egypt, India, most North African countries and Middle Eastern countries. The leaves of the plant are ground into a powder and made into a paste, which, when applied to the skin, leaves an orange stain. After about 24 hours, the orange dye darkens to reddish-brown and then begins to fade as the skin renews itself. “People have been painting each other for thousands of years,” Day said. “Henna tattooing is just being reborn in America.”

Before the recorded introduction of henna; Hindu, Buddhist, and other Indian women used dyes from the fruits of Laksa tress to stain the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. According to Guatama Vajracharya, professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, women wore these tattoos decoratively every day. “Widows, as a sign of mourning, did not wear them,” Vajracharya said.

According to Vajracharya, Henna was introduced by Muslims and quickly replaced Laksa. The henna plant, said Vajracharya, was easier to find and grow. During the 16th century, henna’s popularity expanded through Pakistan and North India by the Moguls. Females used henna to decorate their bodies for ceremonies, especially weddings.

In Middle Eastern cultures, henna tattooing is still a whole day affair during which the new bride gets to know the groom’s mother and sisters. It is a celebratory, rather than a spiritual, ritual, equivalent to the pre-wedding makeover and manicure of Western brides.

Henna tattoos traditionally fell into four distinctive styles, according to Aileen Marron, author of “The Henna Body Art Book.” The Middle Eastern style consisted mostly of floral patterns inspired by Arabic carvings, paintings and textiles. This casual style did not usually follow a specific pattern. The North American style accentuated the shape of the feet and hands using geometric floral patterns.

The Indian and Pakistani designs extend beyond the hands and feet to create the illusion of gloves and stockings. These were made up of intricate, repetitive paisley patterns, lines, and teardrops. Finally, the Indonesian or Southeast Asian styles were a mix of Indian and Middle Eastern designs with blocks of color on the tips of fingers and toes.
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