When most people think of henna tattoos, their mind goes primarily to India, where it is most common, even today. But the roots of henna go as deep as 9000 years of tradition and spans many other countries including Egypt, Kurdistan, Pakistan and Turkey, though in some cases the henna use has died out in larger cities and exists mainly in rural communities who have not replaced tradition with a more Western way of life.
The history of henna (also known as mehndi) is not well documented, mostly because it was a woman's practice, and women were not given the opportunity to read or write, and therefore what information has been passed down comes from paintings and long-standing tradition. Henna is mostly linked to celebrations such as weddings, births, and religious festivals, and was used on women of all walks of life, from the lowest commoner to the highest princess.
Unlike most tattoo forms, henna dye is placed directly onto the skin (often focusing on the hands and/or feet) in a paste form and is left on for a number of hours in order to stain the skin varying shades of oranges and browns. The dye usually lasts up to two weeks (though generally less) if done correctly, whereas tattoos or tattoo-like skin carvings last longer than the person wearing them.
Most henna is made with natural ingredients like the ground up leaves of particular trees and occasionally is mixed with essential oils. Beware, however, of anyone selling 'black henna', as henna does not dye the skin black naturally, and these black henna products often contain a chemical called PPD, which has been deemed illegal by the FDA and European Cosmetic Regulations, and can cause severe reactions up to, and sometimes including, death, in cases where a large amount of the "black henna" has been applied.
Traditional henna designs are often flowing geometrical designs and sometimes incorporate symbols, vines and lotus flowers into these designs. Some patterns are very simple, while others have an almost lacy look to them. And now with the advent of henna stencils, henna can be used to place tribal and Kanji tattoos, as well as any number of designs that can be turned into a stencil. Just remember that most henna applications need to be left on for a number of hours in order to leave the skin dyed so it will last. After removing, it is best to wait twelve hours before getting it wet, and avoid swimming pools and saunas. As for showers, avoid exfoliating the area and pat the skin dry without rubbing. Doing this will allow the tattoo to stay on your skin for a longer time.
So for anyone interested in the idea of tattoos and body art but don't want the permanence or the pain, and can't get the hang of temporary tattoos, look into henna tattoos. Subtle, beautiful, natural and painless: what's not to like?