by Kris Harris Pfaffle
The use and practices of temporary body art have a history just as long and fascinating as that of permanent tattooing, with traditions ranging across the globe. The purpose of historical temporary body art was primarily related to special events and ceremonies, but these practices have meandered their way into our Western culture and are experiencing a true renaissance in contemporary use. The cultural traditions of henna/mehndi art as practiced in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia had become “old fashioned” in their territories of origin, with the younger generation turning away from the old practices. As it has become more popular in the West, it has also experienced a rebirth of popularity in the old countries, providing a beautiful and viable option for corporal self-expression in celebrations, ceremonies, or just for fun.
Ancient Roman manuscripts mention the color and character of Briton body art, as stated in the Latin translation: “All the Britons dye their bodies with woad (vitrum), which produces a blue colour, and this gives them a more terrifying appearance in battle.” Unfortunately, as this tradition was broken for at least twelve centuries and no written record exists on pre-Christian Celtic body art, we may never be certain what it looked like or how it was done. Perhaps it was used for significant events, vows, or magical protection.
Presently, crystallized indigo from the Indigofera tinctoria plant produces a similar effect to the woad used by the Celts, but it is easier to store, use, and manage (as compared to woad processing, which smelled like rotting cabbage, urine, and rotten eggs, which might be considered a turn-off for some). Its blue color, higher dye content than true woad, ease of application, and short staining time make it a good choice for temporary elegant body art.
Genipa Americana is the Latin name for the dye used in Jagua body art. The fruit of this flowering tree is what produces the stain. Collected while the fruit is not entirely ripe, the clear juice oxidizes while on the skin over a period of about twelve hours, producing a blue-black color that can last up to two weeks. The traditional method of application was with twigs or sticks dipped into the juice, and goes back as long as the tribes can remember. Passed down through generations over thousands of years, different Amazonian tribes have different methods for preparing their paint. Its medicinal properties are well-documented, chief among them the ability to ward off insects, treat bronchitis, and protect from sunburn. It is not uncommon to see babies covered from head to toe in black stains as a means to repel biting insects. Historically, the women of the community made designs with symbolic traditions passed down over the generations. Modern application techniques popular with Western youth use a gel medium, which is applied to the skin with paintbrush or bottle, left on for two hours, then washed off, leaving an initial pale grayish design that will oxidize over a twelve hour period to shades of blue-black.
Henna body art is probably most familiar to Western society from photos of Hindu brides who are intricately patterned with henna for their weddings. The artwork signifies the strength and success of this marriage, and the bride makes an effort to keep it on as long as possible to maximize the power of the final stain. This intricate design often incorporates the names and/or faces of the bride and groom.
Henna traditions do not belong to any one single religious community or area of the world. They are commonly found in North and East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists have all used henna at one time or another. Jesus and Mary very likely had henna on their bodies for the wedding celebration at Cana.
Although henna is most often seen on women, men also use henna for weddings, celebrations, and circumcision ceremonies. Some celebrations even call for creating beautiful designs on horses, donkeys, and dogs.
Creating henna designs on a woman after she gives birth is a traditional way to deter malevolent spirits and the “evil eye” that are thought to cause disease, depression, and poor bonding with her baby. The application process of henna to her feet prevents her from getting up to do housework. During the weeks after application, she is ritually not allowed to do the household tasks that would spoil the beauty of these henna stains, which increases the likelihood that she will rest properly and regain her strength after giving birth. She must allow a friend or relative to help her care for her older children, cook, clean, and help with the new infant. This assistance gives her time to regain her strength and to bond with the new arrival. Interestingly, very low rates of postpartum depression are found in countries such as India, North Africa, and the Middle East that practice these traditions within the popular religious practices of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Coptic Christianity. These rituals support the mother both physically and emotionally after birth, and help to reintegrate her into her community following the birth and recovery.
Henna grown in the hot climates of Morocco, Yemen, India, and Pakistan has more dye content in the leaves and will yield stronger stains by bonding with the keratin in skin and hair. When applied to skin, the stain molecule penetrates and saturates the top layer of skin (stratum corneum), leaving stains ranging from orange to near black on the thickest areas of skin, usually the palms and soles. Stains will exfoliate from the skin in 7 – 30 days with the natural regeneration process. Historically, henna was applied with a small stick, still a common method in many areas. Presently, most henna artists use either a rolled paper cone, bottle, or blunted syringe to apply designs to the skin. Once the paste has been left on the skin for six to eight hours and scraped off, during the first 48 hours after application it will oxidize and darken, much the same way that a cut apple turns brown if left exposed to the air.
Indigo, henna, and jagua are becoming more widely available in Western countries as a result of popularization in Western pop culture, and are a fun alternative to permanent tattooing which allows experimentation, self-expression, and unending variety.
Official “Yooper transplant,” Kris Harris Pfaffle has been creating artsy-crafty items to sell since grade school, most recently following where her current henna body art endeavor may lead. To follow Kris’ current obsession, search “Behennaed” on FaceBook for running commentary and upcoming events.