[crossroad]Gorgeous paisley patterns entwine with floral vines and intricate lace that are wound and twisted over hands, wrists, feet and ankles. The end result: beautifully organic red-stained body art.
Henna tatoos (also known as mehndi art) have become increasingly popular across the country, especially on college campuses. They are a temporary experience in body decoration and can be a unique educational exercise.
“Culturally we’ve changed so much,” said Danielle DeVoss, associate professor of Writing Rhetoric and American Cultures at MSU.
[hands] DeVoss taught an American Thought and Language course that focused on body modification and decoration and has spent time studying henna tattoos. Citing influences from celebrities like Madonna, Liv Tyler and Gwen Stefani, DeVoss encouraged her students to examine mehndi “in terms of cultural migration.”
“The world is a smaller place now,” said DeVoss. “I think that we’re at a cultural crossroads.”
Mehndi art dates back as far as 1200 B.C., according to some historians, and is usually associated with Indian culture. However, the traditions have become prevalent in a number of Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan. When applied, the paste has an instant cooling effect and originally it was used as a relief from the oppressively hot Indian summers. The tradition evolved into very elaborate works of art and body decoration and has become an integral part of cultural customs, especially wedding ceremonies. Women also applied henna mixtures to their hair to enhance the color, deep condition the hair and of course to cool the body.
[henna] “In India, growing up we always had people that did it; it was as easy to get, just like going to the beauty salon,” said area Mehndi artist Anshu Varma. “I feel like [now] I’m keeping some part of that tradition alive and it gives me a great artistic outlet.”
Henna tattoos are most often applied to hands and feet. In fact, the warmth from the palm aids in the dye’s reaction with the skin, making it the best body part for mehndi art. In India, women were always the only ones to get henna tattoos and the experimentation in America started with women as well. As its beauty and intrigue has spread in the United States, more and more men are lining up to be human canvases as well.
On campus, residence hall mentors and racial ethnic student aides frequently organize programs to promote multicultural competency and henna tattoos are often available for free to students. Other opportunities can be found at festivals across the state including the East Lansing Art Festival, the Great Lakes Folk Festival and the Renaissance Festival. Artists vary in their pricing (which depends on the style and intricacy of the design) but tattoos typically range from a few dollars to over $20. Even more accessible, henna pastes and mixes are available online for a similar range of prices. Full kits can cost $30 or more but usually contain everything needed to create stellar designs, including stencils for those who may be apprehensive about their own artistic skills.
“I’ve always thought henna tattoos are cultural and beautiful. The designs are intriguing and out of context they’re extremely eye-catching,” said advertising senior Erica Carpenter who got her first mehndi at a residence hall program.
All traditional henna is made from natural ingredients, the most essential being the dried and ground leaves from henna plants. It is applied to the skin as a very deep brown paste. After the skin absorbs the dye it becomes a rusty orange color and will slowly fade. However, as mehndi art continues to spread, different formulas have become available. One such variation is the “black henna” that is marketed as being darker and longer lasting. Many artists, including Varma, discourage the use of these new darker pastes because they include harmful chemicals that can irritate the skin.
To start, most professional artists will first wash the area thoroughly to clear it of any dirt or oils that will hinder absorption. They will then prepare the skin with special henna oil that will enhance the color. Tubes or bottles with small applicator tips are used to create the detailed designs on the skin.
Once the henna has been applied, there are many different tips to care for it to keep it fresh and extend its life. First, the longer the henna is allowed to dry on the skin, the deeper the color will be and the longer it will stay. The recommended drying and setting time is at least six hours, but “the longer the better” is a generally accepted rule and many people leave it on overnight. After the paste has started to dry it is a good idea to lightly mist the mehndi with a lemon juice, sugar and water mixture. This simple recipe keeps the paste from flaking off and helps the skin absorb the dye.
After scraping the dried paste off, (if possible, and sanitary) avoid washing the area with soap for the first day. Even after the henna paste is scraped away the dye will continue to absorb into the skin, so the less contact with water, the better. Proper and careful care of mehndi art can make the designs last for up to four weeks.
Overall, the expression that can be channeled through henna tattoos and mehndi art is endless. The different combinations of the traditional elements of Middle Eastern culture and patterns along with personal preferences and inspiration create incredible art without too much commitment.
“Kids are so full of energy and searching for outlets,” said Varma. “[Mehndi] has been there all along but now people are realizing that different is good.”

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