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Mehndi is a 5,000-year-old art form that is gaining popularity as a non-permanent alternative to tattooing.

Celebrities like Demi Moore, Naomi Campbell, and the artist formerly known as Prince have had beautiful, intricate designs adorning their skin. With the right recipe, tools, a little practice and a lot of patience, anyone can create designs that will last a week or longer.

Mehndi is made using a paste of henna powder, oil and water. The design is applied with a stick, brush or cone applicator and left for up to 12 hours to dry.

It is believed that Muslims spread the art throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and India as they migrated thousands of years ago. Mehndi is still an important part of cultural and social activities in these areas.

Many body art shops, tattoo parlours and beauty salons offer to apply mehndi designs. Simple designs start at $10 to $25 for bracelets and other small pieces. More intricate patterns can cost in excess of $150 and cover entire hands or feet.

Traditionally, mehndi designs were painted on a woman's hands and feet. The designs can have thick lines and simple shapes, or fine lines and delicate patterns like paisleys and fretwork. Mehndi is often used for special occasions like weddings and family celebrations.

Indian lore says that unless a new groom can find his name hidden within the patterns on his bride's feet and hands before they fade away, the wife will rule the family.

Mehndi artists use orange sticks, toothpicks, thin needles, syringe tubes and small plastic cones similar to cake decorating bags to apply the paste in an even thickness. They can also use adhesive stencils to create patterns on a chosen body part. The stencil method, however, uses much more henna paste.

Any skin type and skin color can have mehndi work done on it. The trick is to leave the henna on as long as possible.

Expect to wait at least six hours for the henna paste to dry. Once it has dried, it is picked off. The design will look orangey. Then a mixture of lemon (or lime) juice, sugar and water is spread on the design to help "set" it so it will last longer. The color darkens overnight.

A warm body temperature also helps to deepen the color.

Heating the area with a blow-dryer or wrapping it in plastic, being careful not to smudge the design while the paste is still on the body, will also help the design to set better and last longer.

Henna is a natural sunblock. Don't be surprised to find you have a reverse design once the mehndi fades -- especially if you spend a lot of time in the sun.

Any design can be used. You can use traditional Hindu, Celtic or folk patterns or design your own. Lines and dots are the most common ways to create designs.

Mehndi patterns used to be made from a sheet of thick henna paste. Artists would make it by rolling the thick henna paste until it was a thin sheet. They drew the patterns, cut the shapes out and applied them to the skin.

Mehndi is growing as more people become aware of this beautiful, temporary art. As most mehndi artists are self-taught, there is an excellent opportunity to turn this recreation into an income.

Fairs, fundraisers, ethnic festivals and at-home parties are great ways to start your business. Word of mouth and inclusion in the Henna Arts International Web site are also good ways to promote your work and gain new clients.

Although mehndi is traditionally practised by women, there are men who are mehndi artists. Anyone interested in drawing can learn to create beautiful mehndi patterns.

Getting Started

There are kits available. But not all kits are created equal and some are very expensive for what you receive. A good alternative is to buy your own ingredients separately and blend them together until you achieve the balance and consistency you are comfortable working with.

Henna powder can be purchased at Indian or Pakistani grocery stores. You will need to filter the powder through a nylon cloth, like pantyhose, to remove any larger particles that could clump up the design.

The oil can be olive, or a mixture of one part essential oil to 10 parts carrier oil (available at aromatherapy stores) and distilled water.

Mehndi is the art of using henna to create intricate designs on the skin.
Courtesy of: Catherine Cartwright Jones

Henna has a very distinctive smell. It smells like newly mown grass or hay -- only stronger. The smell will last for days.

The designs will last longer if you:

  • Don't wash the designs for 24 to 48 hours after application
  • Don't use harsh soaps or antibacterial soaps -- they change or strip the color
  • Don't put them on areas of thin skin -- the thicker the skin, the longer the mehndi lasts
  • Don't use thin lines -- thicker lines (3 mm or thicker) are better

Henna is naturally reddish brown in color. There are colored mehndi powders available, which use ingredients other than henna to create the colors. Some of these chemicals can cause allergic reactions or be otherwise harmful to the skin.

Black henna in particular may contain PPD or p-Phenylenediamine. It can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Always do a patch test on the area you plan to apply your mehndi

Some practitioners and kits recommend adding acetone, or nail polish remover, to the henna paste to help the design last longer. These are chemicals that can burn the skin, so be careful.

To find out more about this beautiful art, look for a mehndi artist near you via the Internet or the phone book.


The History of Mehndi and Henna
Learn the origins of this ancient art form

Gives a tutorial, plus an art gallery

The Henna Page
Lots of information on the art

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