Mehndi is Trendy
The first time I saw them was on the hands of a young Indian woman on the MRT. The next time I saw them was on Madonna's hands on MTV. Mehndi tattoos are pretty, often intricate, designs painted onto the body with a henna dye. although common decorations for special occasions in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, most people associate them with India. Ohm Pendant In India, female friends and relatives traditionally paint the tattoos onto the hands and feet of a bride before her wedding night. The tattooing can take several hours, and during this intimate lull, women offer advice to the bride-to-be. Sometimes, in a deeply romantic ritual, the groom's initials are hidden within the design and he must find them before the couple consummates their marriage on the wedding night. In some parts of India, the new bride doesn't have to do any housework until the designs wear off. But they do eventually wear off. Unlike the Indian weddings they're used to exalt, mehndi tattoos aren't a lifetime commitment. Depending on the strength of the henna and the absorbency of the skin, the tattoos generally disappear in a seven to fourteen days.
For the trendy young, this transient feature of mehndi is its highlight. In a culture obsessed with body modification (witness the popularity of permanent tattoos and multiple body piercings, often in unusual and sometimes downright painful locations), mehndi is a temporary way for the timid to experience body art. Further, the recent fashion trend away from minimalism to more dramatic, ethnically inspired fashions has boosted the popularity of the lacy henna designs. And as always, the fashion-conscious remain fascinated by anything remotely associated with the perceived "mysticism" of the East. To the cynic, mehndi tattooing is yet another way for the West to attempt to co-opt the culture of the East. To the trendy, the tattoos are just for fun. Actresses like Demi Moore and Neve Campbell, and No Doubt's lead singer Gwen Stefani have worn them. Even the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, has sported these decorative squiggles.
Always a sucker for the exotic, I just had to try my hand, so to speak. I call up Rob McGee, a makeup artist here in Victoria, BC, Canada, who says he'd be happy to oblige. Rob's been doing mehndi tattoos in the city for at least two years. He's done various parts of the body, including collarbones, faces, and the arms and shoulders of his girlfriend, but he finds the tattoos are most successful on the hands and feet as the skin there is more absorbent. Although I briefly entertain notions of jewel-like designs on my forehead, or a semi-permanent necklace, I stick to my decision to have my hands done.
A Bourgeois Goes Bohemian
On a Sunday afternoon, I go over to his house in Fernwood, an artsy neighbourhood populated by university students, hippies, and wanna-be artists, actors, and writers interspersed among the real thing. Rob doesn't disappoint. He's fashionably dressed, with an attractive, elfin face, hip hair, and multiple tattoos. Real ones. He offers me a glass of iced tea before sending me into his bathroom to wash and dry my hands thoroughly. We then settle ourselves on his living room floor and I rest my hands on a leopard print cushion as he dips a toothpick into a blackish-green concoction that smells faintly of eucalyptus, Rob's own secret recipe of a mixture of finely ground henna, eucalyptus oil, a few drops of sun-warmed lemon juice, strongly brewed black tea and sugar. He tells me there are thousands of different recipes; many of them available on the internet, but that this one works well for him.
As the music of Portishead moans and wails in the background, I become mesmerized watching Rob sketch swirls and flowers onto my hands. And the light butterfly kisses sensation of being painted on is pretty hypnotizing, as well. I find myself looking into his large, soulful eyes and telling him about the Indian custom of painting the groom's initials into the designs. "Whose initials should I put in?" he asks. When I tell him not to bother, he teases, "I've already put mine in." I'm completely charmed.
An hour later, my leg is numb. Rob has almost finished one hand, and he's stopped for a cigarette break. I hop around the room, shaking out my leg. The swirls on my hands are a rich black, and I ask Rob what colour they'll be tomorrow. He explains the paint will flake off, leaving an orange design. The shade of orange depends on the type of henna used, and the condition of the skin.
"It takes better to skin that is well-worked in, if you're a hard worker, if you've got lots of pores and cracks in your skin, the colour will be darker and last longer. An Indian bride's mother-in-law would love her more if her designs are darker and last a long time - shows she's a hard worker." This makes me slightly nervous. Apparently, my reputation is resting on my hands.
An hour and a half later both hands are covered in a thick, folksy design. As an extra bonus, Rob gives Lucia, my photographer, a tiny package of his secret recipe mixture of henna so she can try out the process herself. I give Rob fifty dollars and take my leave. Actually, I ask Lucia to pass the money to Rob, and I simply hold my hands out in front of me uselessly. Rob warns me not to brush them against anything or the henna will rub off. I'm strangely pleased to have an excuse not to do anything for myself. As Lucia opens the car door, I move my hands around in front of me, examining the rich, thick designs. She jokes, "Oh, so now you've become all feminine, waving your hands about!" I smile mysteriously and settle myself into the passenger seat, queen-like. On the way home I let my hands hang out the window, ostensibly to blow dry in the wind. But really, I'm checking out the reactions of the people in the other cars. No one seems to notice.
Later in the evening the novelty of not being able to do anything has worn off. I want a long hot bath, which I take, trying not to get my hands wet. Unable to do much other than watch television, I go to bed early.
I sleep fitfully, conscious all night of protecting my hands. The next morning I wake up to sheets filled with tiny flakes. The henna has mostly worn off, and the design left on my skin is a rather bright shade of orange. When I dress I leave off my usual rings, watch, and bracelet. My tattoos are jewelry enough. Wanting to show off my new hands and desperate for caffeine, I head out to grab a coffee.
In Torrefazione, an Italian cafe in downtown Victoria, I order a latte with three shots of espresso. The man behind the counter says, "What planet are you from?"
Thinking he's referring to my unusual drink request, I explain, "I really need a caffeine boost. I'm exhausted."
He replies, "No, it's your hands. You look like something from Star Trek." I laugh weakly, and he asks if the tattoos are temporary or permanent.
"Temporary," I say.
"Good thing," he responds, grinning.
But reactions get better. The designs seem to be an icebreaker. Every time I buy something I end up chatting with the clerk about mehndi. At least most clerks think they're pretty. People on the street seem to smile at me more and some start up conversations. We talk about my hands, rather than the weather. I become overly self-conscious about the state of my fingernails. I wonder if it's a good idea to attract so much attention to my rather large hands. I wonder if it's true that my hands are unusually large, or if I'm just paying too much attention to them. I wonder why I don't have better things to worry about. A teenager with wild hair stops me and asks me if he can read me his poetry. I sit down on a bench beside him to listen, and feel terribly bohemian.
A few days later, the designs are beginning to fade. I go to Lucia's house for an impromptu dinner party, and after everyone's had some red wine, she gets out the packet of henna dye. Lucia is a painter, and takes out a long African porcupine quill she'd bought for very fine painting. She wants to see if she can make very delicate patterns with the dye, as opposed to my thicker ones. Zena, one of the guests, agrees to have her foot done. There's something very moody and sensuous about the process. All the rest of us watch, sipping our wine by candlelight, and thinking up ever more silly ways to decorate the body. When Lucia's boyfriend begins painting her feet, the rest of us decide it's time to leave. I drive the barefoot Zena home. She tiptoes carefully to the door of her building. I notice how delicate her feet are.
By the next Sunday, my designs are almost gone. I'm not really disappointed. The designs were fun while they lasted, but I feel like wearing my jewelry again, and being able to vary my look. I realize I'd never want a permanent tattoo - I'd get bored. I wonder why my tattoos have worn off so quickly. Although it's probably true that I'm not a particularly hard worker, at least not in a physical sense, I suspect they've worn off quickly because I wash my hands so often. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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