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henna goes global

(first published in Sassy Bella, 2006)

April, 2006

Body art has never been this popular. From tattoos to piercings, it’s all about making yourself stand out.

But there’s more than one way to decorate your body, and one of the more popular options in recent times has been to use henna.

You may have seen the women at market days and fairs, applying henna to people’s hands, the rich brown patterns creating an elegant contrast with the skin. Or maybe you’ve wondered about the girls showing off their henna tattoos on the beach, a different design every other week.

Exciting and sensual, henna art is the way to get noticed.

Even though it is considered to be a new art form, henna has been around for a very long time. For centuries, henna has been used by the people of South Asia and the Middle East as a form of body art. The rich brown stain it produces allows for temporary designs to be drawn on the skin. It has also been used to colour hair, and the paste can be applied as a treatment for sunstroke.

In many parts of the world, though, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of henna is weddings.

Using henna to decorate a bride’s hands and feet is a thousand year-old Eastern practice referred to as Mehndi art. 

The Indian bride may have moved away from tradition, with dresses and accessories displaying a fusion of Eastern and Western influences, but one thing has stayed the same: henna. The bride’s preparation is incomplete without the intricate patterns symbolising love and destiny.

At the same time, henna art itself has transcended boundaries. Far from being confined to the Eastern countries it developed in, it has exploded into a trend that can be seen in many parts of the world, including America, Europe and Australia.

Anahita Irani, a Perth-based henna artist, says that she finds there is more interest in henna in Australia than in her home country of India.

“In India, everybody does it, and it’s not a new thing… it’s very common, so you have many people doing it. But in Australia you don’t find many people doing it,” she says.

Perhaps it is this novelty that gives henna its international appeal. Certainly, it does attract attention. The exoticism of the art form, coupled with its symbolic relation with the East, makes it exciting.

According to Irani, another aspect of henna’s popularity is its ‘celebrity factor’. With famous figures like Madonna, Gwen Stefani and even Elijah Wood sporting henna designs from time to time on various parts of their bodies, it’s no wonder that henna has become so popular. Fans are rushing to copy their favourite celebrities by getting henna designs painted on their skin.

And, of course, there is the fact that it simply looks good! Henna art has its own appeal. Those who travel to places where this form of body art is common may pick it up from there simply because they were attracted to the beauty of the designs.

Whatever the case may be, henna has gone global. Here in Western Australia, the demand for henna art has seen the opening of henna studios such as ‘Henna Magic’ in Perth and ‘Henna Moon’ in Fremantle.

There are also freelance henna artists, and a number of them, including Irani, are invited to apply henna at various functions and fairs.

The preparation for such an event takes time. Just like any other artist, the henna artist must have equipment. In this case, this means the actual henna paste and the clear plastic cones that are used for application.

The henna paste starts off as a powder derived from the henna plant. While henna powder is available locally, it is also imported from countries such as India and Pakistan.

The leaves of the plant are dried and crushed to make henna powder. It is usually khaki or green in colour. This forms the base for all henna products. From this base, the henna can then be mixed according to what its intended use is.

To make the paste that is usually used for henna art, the powder is mixed with lime or lemon juice, tea and various natural oils such as eucalyptus and tea-tree oil. This releases the natural dyes present in the henna.

Each henna artist will have their own method of creating the henna paste, however, depending on the effect they are going for. For some, the colour of the stain takes priority, while others place emphasis on the time it lasts. In each case, a combination of different oils is used to achieve the desired balance.

In much the same way, the application of henna is also a creative process that is unique to the individual. The different cultural backgrounds of the artists, and to some extent, the clients themselves, all have an impact on henna art.

While the traditional patterns continue to have their own appeal and are immensely popular, there exist contemporary forms that are based on different concepts. Whereas the traditional designs draw inspiration from nature, modern designs may be abstract and bold, with motifs such as tribal suns.

People can choose to design their own patterns or pick from a range of pre-designed ones. Some of these patterns are simple, others complex. Often it depends on what the client has in mind.

Henna art is no longer confined to the hands and feet, either. People have become more daring and choose to have other parts of their bodies decorated with henna.

“Sometimes, it’s strange but some people tell me to do it on their shoulders, and some people tell me to do on their backs, things like that you know… and there are all kinds of requests, actually,” says Irani.

She attributes the trend to the connection henna has with the tattoo culture. Just as tattoos are now to be found on every part of the body, henna artists are painting their designs on new canvases.

Some of the more popular areas for henna art are on the shoulders, back and navel. Indeed, it is more common for henna art that is placed in this way to be to be referred to as ‘henna tattooing’.

The link between henna art and inked tattoos lies mainly in their purpose. They are both forms of body art that involve applying some sort of pigment to leave marks on the skin.

However, the method of application is completely different. Henna tattoos are created by applying the henna paste directly on to the skin and leaving it to dry. Often, the area is wrapped up in order to lock in heat, as that affects the intensity of the result. When the henna hardens, it begins to flake off, leaving a reddish-brown stain on the skin.

The henna pattern is only temporary; it can last from a week to several months, depending on the ingredients in the henna and how long it was left on the skin.

On the other hand, tattoos are created by inserting inks under the skin. While this method creates a permanent design, it is painful. Removal is another problem – whereas a henna design simply wears off and can be replaced by another, an inked tattoo does not.

There is also the fact that some people may be allergic to the pigments used in tattooing ink. This is because of the chemicals present in the ink.

The chances of developing an allergy to a natural henna tattoo are very slim, and symptoms are mild and restricted to irritation of the affected area. Only in extreme cases will something more serious develop.

Unfortunately, due to the demand for henna art, as well as attempts to make it look more like inked tattoos, there has been an increase in the use of ‘black henna’. Unlike natural henna, black henna does have serious side effects.

“There is no such thing as real black henna, and there’s a real warning it shouldn’t be used,” says Irani. She recalls an incident when a bride she visited in India had applied the product to her skin, and ended up with a very painful allergy.

The adverse reaction to black henna can be traced to the composition of the product. Black henna is usually produced by adding black dyes to the henna paste in order to make the stain darker. Instead of brown, the stain is actually black, hence the name ‘black henna’.

The dyes contain a substance known as para-phenylenediamine (PPD) that should not be applied directly to the skin. Cosmetics containing PPD have been banned for years, and most hair dyes containing the chemical have strict guidelines for use.

This is primarily because PPD is a sensitising element. It can easily cause an allergic reaction, and once a person becomes sensitive to it, they react adversely to chemicals and particularly to PPD itself.

Symptoms of PPD allergy include rashes on the site of contact, skin burns and infections. Serious cases may have the person breaking out in hives and developing heart and respiratory problems.

Amy Rylance, a student at Edith Cowan University in Perth, was extremely lucky that she did not develop an extreme reaction to a henna tattoo she got while on holiday in Bali in early 2005.

“I’d had them before and had no problem with them […] I’d heard of people who had them done, and it swelled up, or it went red and sore and things, but I didn’t think it would be that bad,” she says.

Even though Rylance had never had a reaction to black henna before, the concentration of dye in the henna that was applied in Bali must have been strong enough to trigger a reaction. In less than an hour, the tattoo began to burn, and even though she tried to wash it off she still suffered blistering.

More than a year later, she still bears the scar from the burn as a blackened patch of skin near her shoulder.

While she was aware of what could happen with black henna, it was never a threat she had taken seriously. The artist who applied the design had been allowed to operate on the premises of the hotel she was staying in, so she thought that it would be safe.

Looking back, she says that while she had initially thought the idea of henna tattooing was cool, particularly with black henna, she does not now.

“It’s still black, though, I think it’s not kind of cool now. I hope it’ll fade, eventually. I wouldn’t want it there forever.”

Considering the dangers that are associated with black henna, then, it would be better to use the natural brown henna instead. Even though the stain does not last as long, and is not as dark as that of black henna, it is much safer. Be wise while being fashionable, and go the natural way!

Henna and Culture:

While the current trend in henna application draws mainly from the traditions of the Indo-Pak subcontinent, henna plays a significant role in many cultures. Each of these cultures have their own uses and methods of applying henna that are unique to them.

    • The Arabs tend to have large, floral designs. They primarily decorate the hands and feet, with most emphasis on the palms. It is considered to be holy or magical, and often the designs chosen include patterns thought to safeguard against calamity. Brides are often treated to a special ceremony where henna is applied on the arms and legs, and the bride-to-be has to sit completely still until the paste dries in order to allow for the strongest stain possible to develop.
    • The people of the Indo-Pak subcontinent prefer more delicate, almost filigree designs. Henna is primarily applied at weddings and religious festivals. A bride may have her hands, forearms, feet and shins decorated with henna before her wedding. While henna art is more common amongst the women of the culture, in some parts of Bangladesh and Kashmir men apply henna as well. The bridegrooms may have their hands and feet decorated with special designs that are just as intricate as those of their brides, but contain special motifs.
    • The people of North and Eastern Africa use henna as a cosmetic. The women put it on their fingernails and their patterns are characterised by long, sweeping strokes and large geometric designs. Women wear henna as a part of their daily lives, staining the ends of their fingers and drawing a simple circle in the centre of the palm. When it comes to religious festivals, they use a combination of black and brown henna to create a shaded design. Henna is mainly applied to the hands, although in some cases patterns on the forearms are also done.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013