9/10/2003

A Red Stain of Bewitching Beauty

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN. Sept. 10 -- Amber Nicosia's idea of a perfect Saturday night is to invite over two or three of her girlfriends, mix a greenish powder with some lemon juice, black tea and eucalyptus oil, and paint the resulting mud on each others' bodies in psychedelic sunbursts, creeping vines, intricate labyrinths, paisley patterns, geckoes, stars, moons, and butterflies.

"It's a bonding thing," says Nicosia, a recent graduate of Rochester Technical and Community College. "The designs are beautiful, but the important thing is being together."

This ritual, odd as it may sound, is increasingly popular in southeastern Minnesota, where hundreds of women have taken up the ancient art of mehndi, or henna body painting, with a passion.

Once practiced only at Indian weddings and festivals and during Muslim celebrations such as Eid, which breaks the fast of Ramadan, mehndi in our community is rapidly being adapted into such distinctive

American festivals as Halloween, New Year's Day, the Fourth of July, and the Olmsted County Fair, which had a bustling mehndi booth this year.

Orange-Red Stain

There is no more ardent a group of new henna practitioners than teenage girls.

Carly Blazing, an eighth grader at Kellogg, has had several mehndi done by friends over the years.

"It's cool, it's fun," she says. "It's like a tattoo but it's not permanent, if your Mom won't let you get a tattoo."

Actually, Carly's mom, Vicki Blazing, has had a couple of henna paintings done on herself, both for beauty and meaning. "It's not just a tattoo," she says. "It marks an event with some symbolism."

The orange-red stain of the henna paintings stays on the skin for two to four weeks, depending on how much was initially applied and how much you shower or wash your hands. The henna paste is applied with a tiny "carrot bag," like a frosting bag, and is worn until it dries and flakes off.

" It looks like goose poop when you first put it on," explains Vinisha Bhatia, a Century High School student who immigrated to Rochester from India four years ago and made many of her new friends in Rochester by painting them with henna.

The hypnotic spell of henna designs is legendary. There is archeological evidence of henna at Neolithic sites, circa 9,000 B.C., and paintings on pottery, fresco, fabric, and paper from virtually all of the ancient Middle Eastern, northern African, and Indian civilizations show elaborate henna designs used by women at weddings and festivals.

Un-Guy Like

Super-fine henna patterns worn by Indian women at weddings, and the bolder floral designs of Arabic mehndi, are the two most popular mehndi styles. But Minnesota henna artists like Lisa O'Hanlon, who does dozens of henna paintings each week for customers at Ananke Designs in Rochester, are rapidly morphing those two traditional forms into new directions with New Age moons and suns and their own personal designs.

O'Hanlon's average customer is a 45-year-old local woman with a last name like Johnson, Smith, or Miller, she says. They often come in with friends, or sometimes with a sister or daughter, to have the designs done together. The pain management unit at the Mayo Clinic sometimes sends customers who want a symbol representing "Courage" or "Patience" painted on. Other women buy kits to use at henna parties.

"Henna parties are like candle parties or Tupperware parties only more so," O'Hanlon says. "At a henna party you take off your shirt and sit there in your bra, getting stuff drawn on you by your best friends. It's very personal and it can be a very spiritual thing."
Very un-guy like, for sure. Most men don't have the patience for henna, O'Hanlon says. They prefer permanent tattoos with the painful but once-and-it's-over rite of passage application. Or they want only "bitchin''" henna designs, like barbed wire around the biceps, which she won't do.

Dark and Exciting

In the history of henna, it was ever thus. In my research, I could find only one solid reference to men using henna painting. That was Indian warriors who dipped their hands in henna before they went off to war -- as a reminder of their wives who were waiting for them back home.

On her Web site, O'Hanlon quotes a writer, Catherine Cartwright Jones, who says that women are attracted to henna "to appreciate each other's newness, awe, experience, terror, sexuality, and blood-borne responsibility for the continuation of humanity."

O'Hanlon states her own goals as a henna artist in more bluntly Midwestern terms: "I want you to get a dark and exciting stain every time!"

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report