Henna art has been used to ornately decorate bodies since the Bronze Age. Derived from the plant Lawsonia inermis, and known for its therapeutic properties, it was probably first applied to the skin as a ceremonial stain in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For centuries since, this natural dye has served cultural and religious purposes in different parts of the world, including India, North Africa, and the Middle East. Many Hindu and Muslim cultures use henna to decorate women’s and young girl’s hands and feet, as a way to mark important life transitions or rites of passage. More recently, henna art has soared in popularity in the Western world, as the human body is more and more embraced as a solid medium for artistic expression. Unsurprisingly, henna tattoos made their way also to Hoi An, a melting pot of creativity in Central Vietnam.
Henna Art Hoi An
Van is the only artist at present who does henna tattoos in Hoi An. However, she corrects me when I refer to her designs as ‘tattoos’. ‘Henna is something very different’, she explains, elaborating that part of what attracted her to working with henna is its temporality. Like jewelry, it can only be worn for a limited period of time. We can enjoy and admire its beauty and uniqueness, until it eventually fades away.
Van was inspired to practice henna art after a friend brought some henna back for her from India. She began using her own skin as a canvas, experimenting with Indian and Arabic-style sketches, and eventually started a business in Hoi An. She later joined forces with Tre, a longtime visual artist and childhood friend from Hanoi. Together, they adorn the bodies of locals and travelers, working from a small, intimate studio located on the second floor of Xu Dang Trong in the Old Town, a souvenir shop selling Asian handicrafts and art.
Upon arrival, Van offers me a catalogue of designs to peruse, ranging from tribal to geometric to paisley patterns but nothing quite piques my interest. Instead, I opt for a custom-made piece. Working freehand with a plastic cone, Van draws a floral mandala on my arm, with thin, delicate lines and elegant dot work. She’s meticulous and intuitive, and continues drawing until she’s satisfied with her creation.
I’m told to let the thick, black paste dry and keep it out of water for the next few hours until it eventually crumbles away, leaving behind an earthy, brownish tint on my flesh that can last up to a week.
Over the next few days, I grow attached to the beautiful and finely-crafted artwork on my arm, and it sparks a ton of exciting tattoo ideas. But as the lines grow fainter, I appreciate its ephemerality, knowing that I can change designs with my preference and mood.
If you’re a body art enthusiast – in particular, dazzlingly intricate and lacy designs – but you’re not ready for, or interested in, the forever commitment of permanent tattoos, then henna makes for a great alternative. With their artistic talent and vision, Van and Tie can bring to life both traditional and original designs, as well as any specific ideas you might have in mind