What is a Henna Tattoo?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Henna tattoos are becoming very popular, but what exactly are they? In this lesson we're going to look at this art form and see what it entails, where it comes from, and how it is used across the world.


For many people, committing themselves to a single permanent tattoo is somewhat intimidating. However, there is an alternative. Henna tattoos are a form of temporary body art that has been practiced for millennia (but has only become popular in the United States within the last few decades). It's wise to research any form of body modification before jumping into it, so let's get to know henna a little better, and then you can decide if you want a henna tattoo!

Henna being applied

How Henna Works

When we talk about henna, we're actually talking about a few different things. Technically, henna is a plant (Latin name ''Lawsonia inermis'') that grows in the tropical climates of Africa, South Asia, and parts of Australia. By itself, the leaf of this shrub doesn't do much, but when broken down it releases a pigment called lawsone. This is what henna tattoos are made of - the ground up leaves of the henna plant, which have been dried and mashed to make a dye. When the pigment in the leaves makes contact with the proteins in your skin, it stains the skin cells a rusty red-brown color and voila - you have an instant tattoo.

So, the term 'henna' officially refers to the dye made from the henna plant. The art form of applying this pigment to the skin in various intricate patterns is called many things across the various cultures that have used it. There are many terms used to describe henna art, such as mehandi or mehndi, which are derived from different languages spoken in South Asia.

The henna plant

History of Henna Tattoo

So henna plants are used to create a dye that is applied to the skin. That's simple enough, but where did this originate? We don't know for sure, but the use of henna dyes for body art is well documented over thousands of years. In fact, the ancient Egyptians used to adorn both the living and dead with henna tattoos. So it's a very, very old custom. Why did ancient people like it so much? Well, the art form was practiced for a variety of rituals, but ancient people also liked henna tattoos for the same reasons we do: they're a beautiful form of personal art.

Uses of Henna Tattoo

While henna tattooing was practiced across Africa, South Asia, and parts of Australia, it was perhaps most famously used in India as an important part of many rituals, such as weddings. Since henna tattoos were generally fragile, receiving them on the hands or feet was a sign that someone was exempt from physical labor for a few weeks. New brides, expectant mothers, and others going through major changes in life might receive henna tattoos to symbolize their transformation and this unique period in life.

Henna is still used today for rituals and personal reasons

Ever since the 1990s, henna tattoos have been gaining popularity in the United States and Europe. People like them because they are temporary (lasting between 1 and 3 weeks), are painless to apply, and let's face it, they look really cool. They do, however, still take a long time to apply, so don't expect this to be a quick process.

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