Henna tattoos—those elaborate designs showing up on the palms and soles of Hollywood's glitterati—have their roots in ancient India, the Middle East, and Africa, where Egyptian emperors went to their royal graves with henna-adorned nails.
Today, Indian women continue the tradition of mehendi, or henna design, decorating their hands and feet before weddings and other special occasions. In Niger, as in other African countries, henna artists (called tchinaden) use the paste to ward off evil spirits.
While it is a practiced art form, creating your own henna body designs is not as hard as you might think. Henna paste comes from dried leaves of a hedgelike tree, cultivated for centuries for its ability to produce a natural brown-red color or stain.
You may purchase a kit such as The Art of Henna (Healthy Planet Products, 800-424-4422) or create your own paste by buying fine-quality green henna powder at a natural foods store and mixing it with an equal part black tea or coffee. Let the mixture sit for several hours or even overnight to achieve a consistency similar to toothpaste—smooth and lump-free. If too thick, add more liquid; if too thin, add more henna powder.
Henna works best on clean, smooth skin, so first wash the area with soap and water and pat dry. Some artists like to apply a small amount of eucalyptus oil to open skin pores, allowing for darker designs.
Draw out your design on paper and practice applying the henna paste. Different cultures and artists have their own application techniques. The two most common tools are flat toothpicks and small, plastic bags with a hole cut into one corner (like a pastry bag).
Apply your henna paste wherever you wish the design to appear. It will stain, so be careful. Let the henna paste dry on your skin, wetting it occasionally with a slice of lemon.
The longer it sits on your skin, the darker the design will be (try anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours). When you are ready to remove the paste, apply light oil over the design and gently remove the hardened mixture.
Avoid washing the design for several hours, as it will continue to darken a bit more as it dries.
Your artwork should last for several weeks, depending upon where it is on your body and how often the area is washed.