Blog Entries

Body Art (Part I)

Monday, December 06, 2010
I am fascinated by body art.  Not the cute little kiddie tiger face paintings (although delightful), fleur-de-lis tattoos and other 21st century stuff, but the authentic culturally signicant stuff:  Tribal tattoos, body painting, scarification, etc.  To that end, I plan to start a series of blog posts about the origins of body art and its meaning as there is no way to get all of the information that is out there in one single post.  Today, I'll just get started with henna.  I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

21st century stuff:
Vine of Ivy tattoo memorializing
my grandmother Ivy.

Before I had tattoos, I had Mehndi - the art of henna painting.  Practiced in India, Africa, and the Middle East, henna is believed to bring love and good fortune and to protect against evil. Mehndi is traditionally practiced for wedding ceremonies, during important rites of passage, and in times of joyous celebration. A paste made from the crushed leaves of the henna plant is applied to the skin, and when removed several hours later, leaves beautiful markings on the skin that fade naturally over 1 to 3 weeks.  [Source:]  Like many culturally significant practices, the art of henna has gone mainstream and people all over the world get henna tattoos for sheer beauty.  Pictured below, however, are all authentic depictions.

Source:  National Geographic

In our Western culture newly weds proudly wear a ring on a specific finger to tell the world they are married. Some of the women here [in West Africa] make elaborate henna tatoos on their hands and feet to show that they are newly weds. Henna tatoos are temporary unless applied over and over again for long periods of time. Then the skin can remain discolored permanently.

Somali (Dertu) woman with henna.

"Lailat al henna" is a women-only celebration to honor a bride on the eve of her wedding in the Sultanate of Oman (Arabia). Her hands bear fanciful filigrees executed in henna, which will wear off in several weeks.
[Source:  National Geographic]

During pre-wedding Henna parties in Morocco, the oldest member of the family (often the grandmother) smudges henna in the palm of the bride and groom to symbolically bestow the new couple with good health, fertility, wisdom, and security. The henna is believed in Moroccan tradition to protect the couple from demons. The grandmother covers the henna, a dough-like paste produced by mixing crushed henna plant leaves with water, in order to lock in body heat and generate a richer color. Normally, the henna will dye skin orange for up to 2 weeks. In Moroccan folklore, the bride is exempt of her household duties until the henna completely fades. After the bride and groom are blessed with the henna, the guests also spread henna on their palms to bring good luck.

Indian (Gujarat) woman with Henna by Rudi Roels from Flickr.
Interesting also is the art of body seen in the photo below of the Surma peoples of Ethiopia.  (I posted magnificent (!) photos of the Surma peoples previously on OBG.)  This time, photographer Eric Lafforgue explains that body paintings are central in the culture of the Omo Valley ethnic groups in Ethiopia, like the Suri or the Mursi [also known collectively as Surma].
"These paintings made with clay and water, by sliding the fingers on the body, do not only have a decorative purpose. Indeed in these cultures body paintings have a social role and are part of several rituals. The first periods of a girl, the birth of the first child for a woman, the death or a disease of a family member, or the killing of an enemy are circumstances justifying the decoration of the body with paintings. Forms and colours of body paintings in the culture of the tribes of the Omo Valley have a specific meaning. For instance, white color is related to the action of herding cattle. Surma sheperds fully coat themselves with white in order to locate each other from far distances."
[Photo Source:; Text source: Flickr]
Among many other cultural groups, Australia's Aborginies also use body paint (and tattoos), but I'll save that info (Part II) for a rainy day.  =)
Have you ever tried henna or body paint?  Do you have a tattoo?


Denise on: December 6, 2010 at 3:19 PM said...

Yes!!! I was even thinking of getting a henna tattoo on my hands. It's a gorgeous art form.

Thanks so much for sharing :)

p.s. Check your e-mail (info@) I sent you a link I think you'll like :)

Unknown on: December 6, 2010 at 8:15 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown on: December 6, 2010 at 8:17 PM said...

Denise...You should go for it! I used to get it done on my feet...still do sometimes when the weather is places like Berkeley, Miami or LA in particular...where the street festivals or beach communities ALWAYS have henna artists. It tends to last longer too since we tend to use more water on our hands (several times a day).
I've always wanted to have a henna artist available at my store on Fridays during the summer. A cute little henna tattoo to start off the weekend adds a little fun...all in the name of celebrating culture. =)
P.S. I'll make sure I check out the link.


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