Parents fainted. Legislators tried to put age limits on it. And professional illustrators raked in the cash. We’re talking, of course, about tattoos, the epidermal art that made twentysomething skin the canvas of the ’90s.
But like every fad, this one, too, will pass. Now there’s mounting evidence that tattoos aren’t as sexy and chic as many first thought. They may be wickedly cool, yes. But they’re more permanent than marriage, a bad credit history or prison time. After all, who wants to explain tattoos like “Death Wish” and “Porn Star” to their grandkids?
Not a lot of people, that’s who. So as savvy investors everywhere stash their money in stock portfolios including the latest in tattoo-removal technology, everyone else lines up for henna tattoos, known outside the Western world as “Mehndi art.”
They’re painless. They’re affordable. They last upwards of a month, then fade like a tan. And they’re the biggest thing to hit human skin since sunscreen. Unlike the macho, tough-as-nails aura of tattoos, henna patterns herald the more feminine side of skin art. In India, where Mehndi art flourishes, henna tattoos are drawn on brides before weddings. The longer they last, the deeper the love between the couple—even if men don’t get marked. “For the most part, it is a feminine art form, practiced by women on women,” writes Carine Fabius in her book Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Painting.
To follow this trend, head east to Boston where the young, attractive and trust-funded hordes of the city’s student population brought henna tattoo kits back from summer trips to India. Mehndi art is also popular with young Israelis. It was only a matter of time before celebrities got involved. There’s considerable debate about who got there first, but No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani strutted henna tattoos on stage months before Madonna gave them nationwide exposure at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The film world helped, too, if you ignored the steamy sex scenes of Kama Sutra and focused instead on the henna patterns of certain actresses.
The ancient inhabitants of lower Egypt would not have been impressed by any of that. They started it all, grinding henna paste from the indigenous plant then applying it to hands and feet for ritual purposes. Moguls carried it farther east, where it became a permanent part of Middle East and Indian life.
Today, the dye is set on the coasts and in the Pacific Northwest where henna tattoo artists are found in hair salons and coffee shops. In Salt Lake City the sketch is rougher, but coming into focus. The henna dwells at Urban Soul-Body Retreat or at Gypsy Moon, where henna artist Tahra Brown draws out Celtic designs for computer analysts, students and anyone else who wants an old-style tattoo.
“I was amazed at how many people wanted these, especially during the summer months last year,” Brown says. “I like to associate myself with Celtic designs because there’s not a lot of it done with henna, but it’s not the only design I can do.”
Besides a good artist, the trick to a quality henna tattoo rests in the ingredients. The henna must be finely ground, then mixed with a blackening agent like coffee, black walnut oil or black tea. A mixture of lemon and sugar helps set the design on the skin, and eucalyptus whisks away skin oils that might interfere with henna’s bond to the epidermis. It also acts as an antiseptic and adds a tingling sensation.
“I do so many henna designs I’m always a little bit tingly,” Brown laughs.
Throughout history, Mehndi art has meant much more than pretty patterns. It took on magical, spiritual qualities. The Sudanese used it for healing. Moroccan women were hennaed to enhance fertility, femininity and to repel evil. Moorish women in Medieval Spain did the same, before the Inquisition prohibited virtually everything not connected to the Roman Catholic Church. Mehndi art’s roots in the Goddess cults gave Spanish inquisitors the creeps. Those roots are still strong. In many Arabic countries, henna is still thought to have talismanic properties. The Berbers of Morocco even have a name for it: baraka, or the positive power of the saints.
Henna positively brims with baraka. So if something dark and evil is barreling down your road, run, don’t walk, to the nearest henna parlor. Just be sure your heart and intentions are pure before application, otherwise things might backfire. There’s an ancient Arab proverb that says, “If I don’t speak the truth, I won’t present my hand for henna.”
It’s this aspect that often enchants the henna customer, Brown says. “I like the idea of imparting a symbolic energy through decoration. It really makes for a satisfying vocation,” Brown says. “Every time you look at your tattoo you can remember the state of mind you were in when you had it applied. It’s like an act of renewal.”
And given henna’s temporary nature, renewal is what it’s all about. You can get tattoos repeatedly, and never run out of skin. If you want a fading tattoo made new again by the same henna illustrator, most will charge half price. In America, the land of do-it-yourself, the artistically inclined can buy kits for solo designs.
Henna is ideal for trial-run tattoos. If you’d like to make a pattern permanent, simply take it to a tattoo artist where it can be made so. For the most part, though, henna’s attraction is by way of its impermanence.
Brown has two permanent tattoos herself, and wishes Mehndi art had been around as an option before she made that kind of commitment.
“It’s good to be impulsive and get something as brazen as a real tattoo, but it’s also nice to try a different design every month,” she says. “The spirit of henna is with us, I guess you could say.”