My mother and I were wandering the streets of Lahaina, HI, and we noticed an abundance of Henna Tattoo parlors. My mother, who had lived in Pakistan for a year in the late 1980’s, had told me a little about henna, and I was curious as to what it was used for and why there are tattoo parlors in Hawaii that use it, when it was originally something that came from the Middle East.
Me: Can I ask you a few questions about henna?
Informant: I’ll have to ask my boss, as sometimes people come to ask questions and she worries that people will steal her methods, how she does things, that kind of thing. [After a couple of minutes] Okay, she agreed.
Me: Ah. Yeah, I’m not an artist, and I’m not from around here.
Informant: Yeah, I can tell. So her worries are unfounded. So we do not only use henna, but also something called jagua. And jaguar is a fruit fro the Amazon, so it is different from henna. IT is more aboriginal while like henna is kind of traditional. I can’t remember exactly what country in the Amazon it is from, but it comes from the rainforest, which is kind of cool. So all those pictures you see of kids with what looks to be tattoos all over their faces, it’s not actually real. Which is actually surprising to most people, so it’s like, no, no one’s letting their kids get face tattoos even when they look like they are. But I do traditional henna, so if you want a little bit of information on that, as we don’t always have it. Cause jaguar will last for about nine to ten days, whereas traditional henna will last like two to three months.
Me: Oh. Wow. That long?
Informant: Yeah. So most people aren’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Traditional henna, I am trying to think of where it started, I believe in India and I know that it was used for weddings, parties, and ceremonies, and rituals, and stuff like that. There must be some exact reason for why they used it, and I’m thinking that it’s because of, uh…I think that at one point in time the designs used to mean something. You know what I mean?
Me: Uh huh. And perhaps still do.
Informant: Like whoever had this sort of design, that meant that they were getting married, or that they were married.
Me: That it had some sort of cultural significance.
Informant: Yeah. I don’t exactly know it, I just make things look pretty. [Laughter] But I know that…which fingers the design goes up mean something, but I don’t know the exact meanings. I have never actually worked with someone from India who could tell me more about it. We just know more about the jagua fruit.
Me: Then talk about the jagua fruit. If that’s what you know more about.
Informant: Yeah. It’s…I just know that like, they used to do it for ceremonies, like for, I’m trying to think…Like when the boys were reaching adulthood.
Me: Like manhood ceremonies.
Informant: Yeah. And they would do it full bodied ones. And sometimes they would be completely covered and it’s kind of nuts.
Me: Wow, that must have taken a long time to prepare and such.
Informant: Not really, as all it is is just mashing up a fruit. It’s pretty organic and most people don’t really get irritated by it, while henna, a lot of people will because people don’t really know what a lot of people mix their henna with. You know? Because different people mix it with different things. While we just mix. Like our jagua is just a fruit. She buys the fruit and ships it here. IT’s super organic and just mashes it up and puts it in a bottle. I wish I knew more about this, as we are more aesthetic than we are anything else.
Me: I understand.
Informant: I can tell you that there is a difference between the traditional designs and the kinds of stuff that we do, the more picture stuff. You know, the more Western kind of stuff that Americans would get as tattoos.
Me: Yeah, the traditional stuff is much more abstract, floral designs.
Informant: Sorry for not being able to give you more information.
Me: No, that’s alright. This is good. Thanks a lot.
Informant: You’re very welcome.
I have noticed over the past several years that henna tattoo parlors are cropping up more and more. To me, this is quite odd, as henna was used, originally, for mostly ceremonial and ritualistic purposes. Also, the fact that the use of henna has spread so far from where the practice began is interesting. This, to me, is an example of something from a non-European culture that has been taken out of context by the Europeans, by the Americans, and turned into a form of body art that has little to no connections to its original purpose, and to the extent that most non-Indian, non-Pakistani, etc. people do not know or understand the cultural significance, the history, the traditions that henna ties into. Also, it is interesting to note that other cultures halfway across the world have a similar means of temporary body art – jagua – that has also been taken out of context to be used for simple decoration, with little care or regard as to the origins, the traditions behind its use. I think that the reason that henna, and to a lesser extent jagua, has become so widespread in American culture is because of its temporary nature. It is not permanent, and so it is a perfect tool for those people who are not sure as to whether or not to get a tattoo, or those people who are not sure they want something of a permanent nature. I think that this is the main reason as to why henna parlors have begun to spring up in the past few years.