When it comes to body modification, there’s arguably no other form more celebrated than that of tattooing. But this article’s purpose isn’t to discuss the permanent markings and techniques to create them utilized by various cultures around the world. Instead, we’ll discuss henna tattoos. Before we get into the details though, first you have to know what henna ‘is’.
Henna is a tall shrub or small tree that has been cultivated since the Bronze Age to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool. Records circa 400 CE from India, Rome and Spain show henna’s use as a hair dye, and it was listed in Syrian and Egyptian texts as a medicinal herb as well as a dye and preservative for leather and cloth..
Today, it is widely cultivated and used throughout North Africa, India, the Pacific Islands, and via immigratory use, parts of Australia, the UK and much of the United States. To this end, henna has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to advancements in cultivation and processing as well as exposure to a broader range of peoples and cultures as immigrants from traditional henna-producing regions move to other areas.
Linguistically and culturally, henna had many different words and names for it, imparted from a number of languaes. This indicates that it was discovered and put to use in many areas around the world, and at different times. Despite its diverse origins, the method of preperation didn’t differ all that much when it came to applying i to skin. A paste of ground henna (prepared from either a dried powder or fresh ground leaves) would be placed against the skin from a few hours to overnight. The depth and quality of the inking could last from a few days to a month, depending on the person’s skin type, the quality of the paste, and duration of use.
Today, people (typically women, though men are embracing the art form as well), especially in Western cultures, use henna as a more temporary (and less painful) means of adorning their bodies merely for the pure joy of doing so. They do it without necessarily attaching a specific significance to the henna or to the application of it to the skin. In days long past, henna was used widely in fertility rites, marriage ceremonies, and myriad social events as well. With the exquisite, intricate patterning, and varied coloration available, there was, and is, no end to how one can beautiful themselves with this delightful and versatile plant.