The Art of Henna
Story and photos by Jordan Stead
The application of henna-through a process called Mehendi-has spiked in popularity in the West during recent years, Armstrong says. The Bellingham artist owns a henna business, primarily run through her website, HennaMoon.com. Armstrong says she has been applying henna professionally since 2006. Armstrong pauses for a moment to inspect the tip of her makeshift henna-application tool. Tightly gripped in her right hand is a plastic bag full of henna paste. The bag hovers an inch above Nichols' arm as Armstrong squeezes the paste through a plastic tip, fastened to the corner of the bag.
The henna plant is originally grown as a small shrub in humid, hot locales such as Northern Africa and Southern Asia and is ground into powder. The grit that remains is mixed with a variety of natural ingredients, such as lavender, Terps, eucalyptus, molasses and essential oils, like tea tree oil, to produce henna paste. In Indian cultures that involve the henna ritual, the chunkier parts of the recipe are rubbed into beards or hair, permanently dyeing the hair follicles, Armstrong says.
Only the finest and smoothest of henna pastes are used for skin decoration, Armstrong says. Each recipe is unique, and some people keep their personal concoctions secret.
Armstrong's special paste ingredients include tea for an appealing scent and lemon to break down the cell walls of the raw henna plant.
Nichols, the human henna canvas, has been Armstrong's friend for more than 10 years. As she sits relaxed, her 14-year-old daughter sits in an overstuffed armchair nearby, doodling. The faint lines of a recent henna design can be seen on her right arm.
Justine Howland-Goodwin, who owns and operates Magical Mehendi in Anacortes, says she has been applying henna for more than a decade.
"Every year, henna gets more and more popular, and a little more mainstream to those who aren't culturally raised with it," Howland-Goodwin says. "Festivals and street fairs give people a taste of henna, and then if they are really interested, they will call for an appointment at a later time."
She says the reasons people choose henna over the more traditional tattoo range from the painless application to the short-term presence.
"[Henna] gives people a temporary adornment to express themselves with; maybe they want to be a little rebellious, or sexy, or just different-henna can help do those things," Howland-Goodwin says. "Also, for people going on vacations, or having an event that they want a little something extra to wear, henna affords them the ease of something that they don't have to pack or worry about."
Howland-Goodwin has eight tattoos, yet says henna art holds a deeper, more powerful meaning. The popularity of traditional tattooing has changed the image of the practice, she says.
"Modern tattooing is so popular and mainstream now that it has lost its edge," Howland-Goodwin says. "People are getting full sleeves and facial tattoos, and it is time to say 'enough.'"
Steve Hate, owner of Old School Tattoo & Piercing in Bellingham, says tattooing is all about personal dedication to something special.
"You have to really love something to put it on you forever; that's what keeps [tattooing] pure," Hate says. "It's one thing to put ink on top of the skin-it's a whole different one to put ink under it."
Armstrong believes the differences between henna and tattoos reflect different life experiences between one individual and another.
"Where people are known to get ink tattoos to memorialize an event, or remind them of their power and strength, henna has [magical] transformative energy," Armstrong says. "As [henna] strengthens in color, so does your conviction; as it fades you are reminded of lessons learned."
Western junior Kelsey Bujacich has long been Armstrong's go-to human canvas for new henna designs. Bujacich loves tattoos, but says she would never get one because she feels nothing is important enough to put on her body permanently.
"There is something relaxing about...becoming a canvas for something beautiful," Bujacich says. "Chele and I never plan a design; the best part of it all is that whenever I am done with a particular design and am starting to feel ready for a new one, the old design has already worn away, and I'm ready for the next adventurous look."
Many individuals fear the permanence and high pain threshold of traditional tattooing, and are looking to henna for a more practical form of body art, Armstrong says.
"As [henna] is just now becoming mainstream, people are fascinated. Henna can be for someone who wants to do something different," Armstrong says. "It is something innocent yet still extreme; something sensual and fun. It has no consequences."
While most henna paste is safe, there are exceptions. Armstrong says many foreign street vendors sell what is known as "black henna," a combination of weak, unhealthy henna powder mixed with black hair dye. The substance is not only a cheap substitute for the real thing, but can also be dangerous, she says. Black henna has been known to cause physical harm, including rashes and blisters on the body, according to HennaPage.com.
While most of this poisonous black henna is sold abroad, some henna found in U.S. department stores also has been altered from its pure form with the addition of metallic salts in the powder, Armstrong says. Despite the salts, henna bought commercially in the U.S. is a much safer bet than the overseas alternative, Armstrong says.
"If you plan on traveling and getting henna done in another country, buy your own at home-it's safer," Armstrong says. "To stay out of harm's way, I use the phrase: 'If it's brown, stick around...if it's black, step back.'"
Although the darkest hues are desirable, Howland-Goodwin says she has seen the full spectrum of possible colors from her long list of clients in her 10 years applying henna.
A large part of her work has been performing Mehendi for bridal events, a wedding tradition that originated in India.
"The familial aspect is something that I really enjoy...for me to go and do the Mehendi for these families, and to be a small part in their important event-it is really touching to me," Howland-Goodwin says. "I've been able to henna several brides in one family."
As the sun dips behind a cloudbank on the horizon, Armstrong finishes the design on Nichols' forearm. Nichols rises and tells her daughter to grab her belongings, thanks Armstrong and promises another session in the near future.
"Henna gets used [as a] healing [process]-I like that," Armstrong says. "[Clients will] see it all week, remembering how good they felt when they got it. We all need different energy and strength at different times in our lives