The Art and History of Henna as Bodyart

Written by Leanna Serras

The use of Henna for body art is several centuries old at least. The people of ancient Egypt and India used this form of temporary tattoo for religious ceremonies, wedding festivals, and for simple body adornment.

What is Henna?

Henna is a plant which grows in the tropical climates of Africa, northern Australia, and southern Asia. Its leaves contain a pigment called lawsone which combines with proteins to cause staining. Because of this staining quality, Henna has been used throughout the ages to dye hair and create body art designs.

Origin of Mehandi

It is thought that Mehandi originated in the deserts of India when the people living there discovered that covering their hands and feet with colored paste from the Henna plant helped them to feel cooler. It wasn't long until a creative individual began making intricate designs with the colored paste instead of just smearing it on. The complexity of designs grew and began to take on meaning. Eventually brides began to decorate their feet and hands with henna as part of their wedding rituals.

Many other Mehandi traditions developed over time. For example, women's hands were decorated with henna at childbirth because women with intricate Mehandi designs did little household labor so as not to destroy their body art. Tattooing women's hands at weddings and childbirth allowed them a few weeks where they could bond with the new husband or new baby and not be bothered with daily household chores. The tattoos were also thought to bestow blessings and good luck.

Health Risks of Henna Body Art

The FDA has only approved henna for use on the hair. Henna has not been approved for use on the skin. Although henna is a natural substance, henna body art does sometimes cause complications. Contact dermatitis is the most common health risk. This is usually caused by unsafe additives in the henna to produce different colors. Black henna in particular has a coloring additive which many people are allergic to.

Additional Information

Using henna for body art has been practiced for over 5000 years. It is a time honored tradition among various cultures of the world. The intricate designs can symbolize passages of life and are also be applied simply for their beauty.

Getting a henna tattoo is preferred by many people over a traditional tattoo because it is not painful, there is less chance of adverse reactions, and it is not permanent. Being temporary is appealing to many people because it allows them to change designs. Just because a henna tattoo is temporary does not mean that it is quick and easy to apply. It takes just as long as a regular tattoo especially if the design is drawn freestyle by the artist.

The first step in getting a henna tattoo is to mix the paste properly. The henna powder needs to be sifted well to remove small fibers. Then a small amount of henna powder is mixed with an acidic liquid such as lemon juice until a thick paste is formed. This mixture should be allowed to sit for several hours until it turns brown and the liquid begins to separate. This paste is then pushed through a fine mesh then transferred to a Ziploc bag which acts as an applicator when the tip of a corner is cut off.

The tattoo itself is then either applied by using a stencil or by drawing freehand. Thick broad strokes can be made using the makeshift Ziploc bag cone. Small intricate strokes can be made with a toothpick The fresh henna body art must be kept covered for up to 12 hours. This keeps the henna in place and allows it to set up with a nice dark color. A henna tattoo that is properly taken care of can last for a few weeks. Avoid getting the tattoo wet for the first day after it is applied and do not get oil, detergents, or bleach on it at any time to prolong its life.