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Mehndi For the Masses

An Essay on Helping Mehndi Survive Its Own Success

For us who are new to mehndi and new to providing this art form as a professional service, things look pretty good. Madonna, whether she intended to or not, has bought our meal ticket by wearing it for all the world to see. Ninety percent of the business I've had so far has been to people who are just as new to mehndi as I am. These clients, however, know little about this ancient art, and come to me full of questions. I've made a point of researching as much as possible, experimenting and improving my skill.

A couple of weeks ago I met a girl who had a lovely butterfly on her back. Unfortunately it was a puffy pink butterfly-shaped scar from a reaction to black "henna". These reactions apparently appear a couple of days to more than a week after the black stain has been applied. This girl's reaction happened after 3 days. It puffed up, got blistery and itched so intensely she lost 3 nights of sleep. The woman who applied it told her that one in 500 people have an allergy to black henna, and she was one of the "lucky" ones.

I could go on about how this statistic was misleading* or how even people who've used the black stuff without adverse affects can suddenly react to it. I could talk about how important patch tests are and about the responsiblity I feel henna artists have to know what they're dealing with. There are issues, however, that are more fundamental -- Like why this woman was using black henna instead of traditional red in the first place.

Is Mehndi Just a Tattoo For Wimps?

In the 90's, permanent tattoos have come to mean "cool". They're not just for bikers and strippers anymore. They're also not for everyone. Some are afraid of the pain, some of the commitment...yet the urge to fit in and maintain a fashionable appearance is primal and strong. This desire created a place in the market for "temporary tattoos". Back in the seventies we got them in packages of gum. Now you can get them anywhere, including clothing boutiques and airport terminals. You can also get special paints with which you can make your own temporary tattoo, which comes at a premium price.

If mehndi is just yet another substitute for real tattoos, its rising popularity is no surprise. It's also no surprise that many people want their henna to be black or coloured to mimic those permanent and painful designs.

Mehndi, however, stands on its own. It represents the magic of transience, rather than permanence. It signifies beauty without pain. It symbolizes patience rewarded. It's not better than a tattoo but neither is it a trade-off. I have a permanent tattoo myself, and never compare the merits of one to the other. Mehndi is different. Period.

Let Henna Do What It Does Best

A lesson I learned in my training as an artist was to not fight your medium -- help it do what it does best. If henna makes a red stain, make the best red stain you can. If it works really well on the palm of your hand, use it there.

So many people tell me they can't wear mehndi where it will show -- they'll get in "trouble". People are afraid of being disapproved of. I understand this, but I still talk my clients into reconsidering. Why do I bother arguing at all? Because public disapproval is based on ignorance and fear. Explain that the more mehndi is seen, the less ignorance and disapproval there will be. People who want to use mehndi as a temporary tattoo will naturally want to have the design placed on parts of the body that are traditionally for real tattoos. Explain to them that mehndi works best on the extremities, on warm and sensative body parts. When clients ask for a black design, tell them henna makes a reddish brown stain and anything else is not henna. I wear henna myself to show what it can do (as well as because I simply love it!). I provide photos of mehndi, with and without the mud: this is much more effective than a book of designs on paper. The more people see proper usage of this medium, the fewer people will demand "black" or "coloured" or want it to take INSTANTLY or work on ANY body part. There will be fewer people with pink itchy butterflies.

Ironic, isn't it, that the girl I met wanted a painless, temporary design and she got the opposite? I've gladly given up the prospect of easy money with black henna in favor of being a "traditional" henna artist with integrity. If you need to break with tradition, do it with the designs you use.

Your clients who get rashes or barely-there stains won't come back for another design. They'll spread the word that mehndi is a waste of time and can harm you. Provide skillful service. Be honest with people. Love what you do and you will be rewarded.

*In my own experience, about half the people I know of who have used black henna have had a reaction. I've done an extensive internet search for any information on PPD (p-phenylenediamine), which is a chemical ingredient in black henna. Nowhere could I find any mention of the percentage or ratio of people who have sensativity to it. Nowhere could I find any mention of studies of its use as a skin dye. All sources warned against contact with skin. This chemical is readily absorbed through the skin and into your bloodstream. The FDA enforces that products containing this chemical have a very clear warning of its potential to cause dermatitis.
FDA/CFSAN Cosmetics - Hair Dye Products <--From the FDA.
P-PHENYLENEDIAMINE <--From Dupont Chemical.

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