Henna: Temporary tattoos with a rich cultural history

Jul 4, 2013

Henna, or mehndi, is a type of temporary tattoo usually used in India, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the past few years, henna has become more popular in the U.S.

Henna artist Jen Helsel’s studio in Grand Rapids is just a small sitting room in her basement filled with comfy chairs, candles, and a cozy fireplace. Artist Cassie Jaffe of Sacred Henna says being a henna artist has become a lifestyle for her and Helsel.

“Every time I come to see Jen we’re usually like, ‘Hey let’s do henna!’ And then we chat as we’re doing art on each other,” she says. “It’s the best way to hang out together cause we’re being creative, we can gab, we can relax. We can get everything done and then we leave being all prettied up. So it’s a win, win, win.”  

Helsel’s henna paste is made of water, henna powder, lemon juice and essential oils.

“The actual henna plant is called Lawsonia inermis. It’s been used for thousands and thousands of years, for not only its ability to stain. There’s a lot of medicinal uses. It’s an antifungal. The flowers for a very long time have been used for perfumes,” says Helsel. “You have to let the paste set in a warm room and allow those cells to break down and release.”

That’s how it makes the stain on your skin. Once it’s on, you have to let the paste sit overnight before it can peel off and leave a stain. Helsel says each country has its own style of mehndi.

“The Morocco’s very geometric. The Indian is very dense and you’ll see peacocks and things like that," she says. "The Arabic you’ll have more flowers, that kind of thing. And then Sudanese is very, very bold swirls—a lot of footwork on that. And then there’s Gulf and that’s more like bouquets of flowers, like wild bouquets.”

Traditionally, women got mehndi for their wedding, before or after childbirth, and on birthdays. Not only because it’s pretty but because the wearer has to relax. If not, they’ll mess up the art.

“You know back then somebody actually had to grind those leaves, that wasn’t done by a machine. High quality essential oils to deepen the stain would have been hard to come across. So to get a good stain was a big investment—both by the wearer and by the artist. And so either you had somebody that really loved you—you know, to do it themselves and was talented—or you had people who were investing in your beautification,” says Hensel. “Either way, to go do a bunch of work and wear off your stains right quick would be pretty disrespectful of the investment that people put into you.”

Cassie Jaffe says people get henna for all kinds of events now. She’s done everything from an 8-year-old’s birthday to a high school graduation. But Jaffe says she mostly does what’s called a “blessing way,” a kind of pregnancy celebration.

“It’s just a time to respect the woman and give her a day before her day—every day is devoted to the child.”

Helsel says she loves getting to know the people she tattoos.

“To spend that time together there’s a deep connection that happens. And I think that’s probably…I think for all of us it’s kind of our favorite part is to really get to know somebody and to really have a moment together. Even if you never talk to them again, you had that moment.”

You can find other henna artists at the Fulton Street Artisans Market in Grand Rapids.