Henna Tattoos: The History of an Ancient Art

An Indian bride displays her henna tattoos near the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India. EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

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Take a quick peek at Neha Assar's Instagram page, and you might see some familiar faces. Lip kit entrepreneur and reality show queen Kylie Jenner is seen showcasing some of Assar's artistry on her abdomen, beauty YouTuber Jackie Aina sports Assar's designs on her hands, and actress Shay Mitchell subtly displays some work from Assar as well. But while Assar is considered an "artist to the stars," she's not decorating these celebrity bodies with permanent ink; she's instead putting a modern spin on an ancient tradition called henna.

Otherwise known as mehndi, henna refers to the tradition of body painting with a paste made from the powdered, dried leaves of the henna plant, aka Lawsonia inermis. Typically done on the hands and feet, henna appears to have roots in various parts of the world but is perhaps best known for its significance as a pre-wedding staple throughout India where it is also an important part of many festivals and ceremonies.

Ancient Origins of Henna

"It's hard to pinpoint exactly where henna originated from since people in Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and India were using it over 5,000 years ago," says Assar, who is the chief executive artist at Los Angeles-based Neha Assar Henna Artistry. "Traditionally, wedding henna always has the name of the significant other written in it. It is supposed to be meticulously hidden for it to be searched for on the wedding night. In the old days, arranged marriages were very common so this tradition was used as an ice breaker for the couple to get to know each other a little better."

Henna designs are often intricate and symbolic, originating from a single point, or bindu that represents "the Supreme Reality." Artists might paint a wide range of flowing designs emanating from that point, including geometric shapes, mandalas, animals, plants and much more. "While historians may differ on details, they find common ground in concluding that henna use as an adornment dates back to at least the Iron Age," says artist Mangala Bühler-Rose of New York City-based Mehndi NYC. "Evidence supports this early cosmetic use in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and elsewhere."

How Much Does a Henna Tattoo Cost?

The cost of getting a henna tattoo depends on many different factors, including where you live, the size and complexity of the design you want and who is doing the tattoo application. Some artists charge by the hour and some by the design, but, on average, you can get a henna tattoo for anywhere from $20 to $200. If you want to attempt a henna tattoo at home, there are kits available containing everything you need for around $10 to $20 or more, again depending on design and complexity.

According to San Francisco-based artist Sabreena Haque of Ritual by Design, the material used in the henna practice is a critical part of the process. "The leaves of the plant are dried and made into a fine powder," she says. "You can mix this powder with sugar, lemon juice and essential oils to create a paste. The plant grows best in desert areas such as the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. It was first discovered in the tombs of Ancient Egypt (3400 B.C.E.). South Asia really popularized it with their extravagant wedding traditions. Now, the art is practiced all over the world — each region has unique styles and traditions."

Are Henna Tattoos Safe?

The increasingly global popularity of henna has its pros and cons, according to experts. The biggest drawback is perhaps the proliferation of a chemical called paraphenylenediamine (PPD), aka "black henna." "'Black henna' contains harmful chemicals and dyes that can burn the skin and leave permanent damage," Assar says. "People need to be cognizant of what they are asking for. When you ask to get your henna done, triple-check the fact that the henna being used is chemical-free. If one opts for a black or bluish color, Jagua Gel is available and has a beautiful stain. It is all natural and is free of chemicals and dyes."

Cultural Appropriation

Another downside of the globalization of henna, according to Haque, is the widespread appropriation and lack of respect for the sacred tradition. "I think it's important for anyone that is receiving henna to be respectful and do some research on the traditions that are connected with the art," Haque says. "You can start by looking up wedding traditions in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. You can also research some religious holidays such as Eid, Diwali, Karva Chauth and Teej. Some hold this art very sacred and it is important to ask your artists the tough questions, so that when people ask you, 'what it means and where it comes from,' you can answer enthusiastically and confidently."

"While henna design is prevalent in South Asia, many communities — Eritrean, Somali, Romani, Moroccan and Iranian to name a few — share a vast rich history of henna design," Bühler-Rose says. "It's important for clients to note that symbolism in many henna designs is sacred. Some communities even consider the substance itself to be sacred. Thus, henna and symbols are used respectfully, sensitively and knowledgeably. For example, placing an image of the deity Gaṇeśa on the feet would be considered disrespectful."

"As the art continues to spread around the world, it is essential to stay educated on the origins and traditions," Haque says. "It's also important not to make a mockery of the art or use it as a costume. Nowadays, people of all backgrounds receive and also apply the art. If you are someone that is applying the art, please be mindful and don't use cultural terms to promote your henna business. Don't call yourself a Guru or change your name just to get more clients."

While the rising popularity of henna has resulted in some distortion and misappropriation of its original significance, many artists are committed to keeping the tradition alive. "I have been artistic my entire life," Assar says. "I often visited India as a child and everything from the architecture to the textiles in fabric really inspired me to pursue Indian art in general. I would get my henna done at any given chance and absolutely loved it. I started doing henna professionally in 1994. I was 14 years old and my very first client was a bride. The rest is history."

For Bühler-Rose, henna is a way to preserve and perpetuate her history. "The use of henna evokes memories of precious quiet moments in childhood, during which henna was brewed and applied," she says. "The symbolism and imagery associated with henna use parallels my own spiritual beliefs and religious practice. Thus, henna design is a harmonious experience for me, one during which I access and use various facets of my identity to be present with, and benefit, people."

For Haque, mehndi is a deeply personal practice that she's been able to share with clients of all cultures. "Growing up in a traditional Pakistani home, henna was applied before religious holidays, special events, weddings, and was also applied as a self-care ritual," she says. "I remember going to Pakistan to stay with my cousins and we would do beautiful designs for each other. I loved the process. My aunties would tell me that it was a good practice of patience and grace, as you need to be mindful as you let the henna dry and set into the skin. As a young girl, I always wanted to be an artist but my immigrant parents weren't always supportive. When it came to mehndi art, they allowed it because it kept me close to my culture and it made my family members happy when I applied it on them. After over 10 years of being a henna artist, it has now become a way for me to showcase my culture and where I come from, to express myself artistically, a way for me to help people mark milestones and bring more intention into their lives."

And while Haque encourages both henna artists and clients to respect the sanctity of the tradition, she also believes a modern and gracious interpretation of the practice is possible. "I also believe in the evolution of the art," she says. "There will be new traditions that will develop over the years, but [it's important] to always honor its roots. Henna is a simple plant, it has become the foundation to major milestones in people's lives all over the world and should be treated with reverence."