Old kind of tattoo new to Juneau

Henna art originally used by women in the Middle East and India

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2000

With a surgeon's precision, Jessica Albritton detailed a curved line as her grapevine design crept up Kate McPherson's left hand.

"I actually got this design off of a wine bottle," Albritton said, squeezing a brown pasty substance from an applicator to form a leaf and a bunch of grapes. "I've been really anxious to use it."

Anxious is a good word to describe those awaiting the arrival of this practice. Some 9,000 years since its inception, the cosmetic art form known as henna has finally reached the shores of Juneau.

And you thought vegetables took too long to get here.

The henna bush is found primarily in India, Iran and North Africa. Its leaves are dried and ground into a powder, then mixed with substances such as water and eucalyptus oil for use in cosmetic applications. Traditionally, the reddish-orange or brownish paste has been used to stain or create artwork on the hands and feet of women in the Middle East and India. The designs last two or three weeks.

Henna, or mehndi art as some call it, is now enjoying rapid growth in the United States. Albritton, who operates out of Cuts Online Salon & Day Spa, where she also heads the hair design team, is the first to offer the service in Juneau.


As tourists walked by the salon recently they stared in the front window at Albritton's craft.

She understands their curiosity.

"About one and a half years ago it caught my eye. I saw it in different magazines or while I was on the Internet. Stars like Madonna sported the henna hands," Albritton said, referring to the pop musician's "Ray of Light" video. "The designs are so articulate and beautiful."

She combined her background as a cake decorator with her artistry skills and found that henna art was something she enjoyed practicing. A client asked her if she'd try applying a design to her back. It was a success, and Albritton's body art career was launched.

The rest of the world got a considerably earlier jump. Christine Cartwright Jones, a Cleveland area artist who's written a book about henna, said the art form was used as far back as 7000 B.C. Henna traditions typically express the human love of beauty and the hope for an abundant, loving life, she said.

"It's always been associated with a woman's sexuality," Cartwright Jones said. "It's a very female art. It's done lovingly and beautifully in a large group of people in a setting of social celebration."

Women in India, she said, adorn the bride-to-be with intricate henna designs a couple days before her wedding.

Diane Van Parijs, owner of Anchorage-based Mehndi Creations of Alaska, said lots of designs on the bride-to-be mean friends and family had plenty of time to give her sexual advice. "The more intricate her designs," said Van Parijs, "the more she'll know how to please her husband."

The body art has become popular here for a number of reasons, Cartwright Jones said. The ever-decreasing cost of air fares has enabled more Middle Eastern women to travel West, enabling Americans to take note of their intriguing designs. Also, people accept more cultural diversity now.

"Eastern culture and religion has become more popular," Albritton agreed. "Along with that comes cultural traditions."

Finally, Cartwright Jones said, a body littered with tatoos -- the look worn by some older rock stars -- has lost its appeal.

"Rock stars' tattoos were cute for a while," Cartwright Jones said, but she added, "you do begin to run out of space. We don't want to look like that. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are so yesterday."

Henna has become trendy with newer pop stars and actors. Part of the appeal is that it is non-permanent, she said. A political slogan today can be replaced by 'I love Mom' in a couple weeks.

"I think a lot of people who are a little older who don't want to do something completely crazy like it," Albritton added. "And it's for kids whose parents won't let them get tattoos."

While American women are more inclined to try the art form, men are experimenting with henna, too.

Cuts Online owner Jo Anne Bell-Graves said henna art complements her other spa services.

"I'm always ahead of the game in trying to add fun little things. It (henna) goes good with a pedicure or manicure," she said. "When you're processing another part of the body, you can get some artwork done, too."

The henna application causes no pain or discomfort. Because it dyes only the outermost layers of the skin, there are no needles and no blood, as there is in tattooing.

The only danger in henna application is if one uses "black henna" which really isn't henna at all. Some black hennas contain toxic dyes and should be avoided.

After applying the henna paste, Albritton dabs it with a mixture of lemon juice and sugar to help the natural dye penetrate the skin. The design is then carefully covered -- Albritton uses plastic wrap -- to trap moisture in. In about 24 hours the wrap is removed and the paste is scraped off, leaving a temporary work of art.

Typically, a hand or foot design can be applied in a half hour or less. Albritton said the extensive back design took only an hour. Costs vary, but often are in the $15-$30 range. Larger ones can cost up to $60.

"Not everyone gets the traditional designs. A band around the arm or ankle has been really popular," Albritton said.

What if someone wanted, say, a skull-and-crossbones design?

"I wouldn't have a problem with that," she said.

Right now, Albritton said, she only applies henna to one or two clients a week, but she expects the number to grow.

"I think it will as people become more aware of it," she said. "It's a lot of fun."

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