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Mehandi An Ancient Art For Modern Primitives By Michelle Delio

My first passport to the wide, wonderful world of body art came in the form of a huge stack of back issues of "National Geographic" magazine. I immediately dove deeply into that yellow bordered stack and didn't surface again for a long, long time.

My brothers, of course, used NatGeo as their introduction to the fascinating concept of naked breasts, while I was enraptured with the uninhibited way that the people pictured chose to decorate their bodies. The wonderful tribal scars of Africa, the tattooed Yakuzas of Japan, and the exotic kohl rimmed eyes and painted hands and feet of the women of India. Somehow those delicate, lacy designs stayed in my mind, and later I even considered having them replicated on my own hands as tattoos. But, as much as I admired the look, I couldn't make the commitment to bearing such visible work forever.

So I was enraptured when I met Matty Jankowski, a multi-media artist working in Brooklyn, New York. On behalf of some adventurous clients, Matty had investigated many unusual and/or traditional forms of body art. He'd also seen henna work on Indian women but he's a more intrepid researcher than I. He tracked it to its source, and amused the saleswomen at an Indian Sari shop by requesting information on what, to them, is a most feminine form of body art.

The work is created with henna paste. Henna is a plant long known for its power to color any substance it's applied to, most commonly used in western culture as a hair dye. Indian women utilize it to beautify their hands and feet before big occasions such as weddings and holidays.

The wedding henna ritual has a deeper purpose than mere esthetics. The night before the nuptials, the women gather together and, during the hours they must devote to having the designs applied, they enlighten the bride-to-be on the mysteries of married life. You must keep the henna paste on the skin for at least five hours, and if you continue to re- moisten and re-dry it over the course of that time, the color deepens and lasts longer. The longevity issue is particularly important to the bride because she doesn't have to do any household work during the period that she bears her wedding henna designs. This is probably the first and last time in her life that she'll be a lady of leisure so she does make an effort to preserve the work for as long as possible.

The traditional ceremony starts with powdering the dried henna leaves, and sifting the powder to remove whatever foreign substances may lurk within it. Then a mixture of eucalyptus oil and lemon juice is mixed with the henna to form a paste. This is allowed to sit for several hours, after which the henna is applied with either a paper cone (sort of like a cake decorator's tool), or a stick of ivory or sandalwood. Once it begins to dry it is repeatedly re-moistened with a mixture of sugar and lemon juice. After five hours or so the henna is scraped off the skin. When it's first removed it doesn't look like much but the color continues to develop and darken over the next eight to ten hours.

There are different types of Henna available, the one labeled "Black" produces a faint gray haze on the skin, "Brown" henna is very close to most white people's natural skin tone and probably wouldn't show up well on darker skinned folks, and the "Red" gives you a wonderful reddish- brown tint.

Matty has experimented with applying henna in the traditional method detailed above but finds that most westerners are too impatient to sit immobile for the extended period required. So he also works with pre- packaged henna paste in a tube, which only needs to remain on the skin for an hour. The artistic can safely decorate themselves at home using this method. I experimented with a tube and got great results -- it was easy to work with and the design lasted for about ten days.

Henna powder can be purchased at many herb, health food stores, or beauty supply shops. If there's a large Indian community in your area, try checking in sari stores. Paste in a tube may be available at Indian stores or see the end of this article for ordering information. Work out the design before you begin the henna application -- skin picks up faint traces of the pigment fast -- so don't think you can wipe the paste off and re-draw until you get it right.

Hands and feet were the only areas traditionally decorated with henna, but Matty has had good success with applications on other parts of the body, although they don't hold the color as long. It's a great look for those who want to add some new art to their body but haven't quite figured out what they want yet -- kind of a trial run for your next tattoo. And it also stands by itself as an ancient and beautiful way to enhance your flesh.

The New York Body Archive is located at #9 Ninth Avenue, New York, New York, 10011 or call them at 212-807-6441. Their henna kit is $25.00 for a tube of paste, (enough for six or more applications) design sheets and application instructions. Matty Jankowski is also available to apply henna, contact him through the Archive.

Originally published in Tattoo Savage.

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submitted by: Anonymous
on: 01 Jan. 1997
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