Taken for Granted: Henna Tattoos

In her article Cannibal Culture (1996), Deborah Roots criticizes the power to nitpick or salvage only parts of cultures for the sake of exchange in a capitalist economy, stating that “culture itself becomes a commodity” (Roots 73), rendering the appropriation/interest of art to be displaced from real ceremonial, social, and political contexts. Beyonce’s performance in Coldplay’s music video Hymn for the Weekend display just that: she stars in traditional Indian wedding apparel, complete with the henna tattoos on her hands, Mangalsutra (black beads worn on the bride’s face or neck), Chudiyaan (golden bangles), and Maang Tikka (bridal veil) (Olivia), all while singing, dancing, and looking at the camera in a seductive fashion. For the sake of this blog post, only hennas will be discussed, yet the overt absorption and sexualization of religious symbols and jewelry by a musical icon only advertises these ceremonial pieces as mindless fashion rather than meaningful components of sacred marriage.

The idea of exoticism drives the motivation of dominant cultures to attempt to embrace the authenticity of spirituality and meaning; pertaining to profit and fashion, the Muslim, Pakistani, and Indian culture has been objectified by this desire to express an exotic aesthetic through henna, or Mehndi, tattoos. Mehndi and henna have been placed in American culture for the sake of fashion and seduction, just as body tattoos that have been derived from tribal and foreign cultures have historically been misconstrued to become sexual, impure, or unclean. However, because these tattoos are “exotic,” the henna tattoos end up evoking “a use [of] objects to construct a conceptual line of escape out of Western culture into a titillating, yet manageable other” (Roots 78). The attraction to henna tattoos comes from several different desires to salvage certain acculturated values:

The first value that American culture has tried to salvage is the intricacy of design that is found in henna. Traditionally, the art process takes a day to few days to design and imprint on the bride’s hands and feet, with small symbols and patterns decorating her skin. The style is unique to the Middle-eastern and Southeast Asian culture. In a capitalist economy like America’s, these designs are mimicked and imprinted on people who want to decorate their skin with something beautiful, now using nontraditional white, gold, silver, and glow-in-the-dark ink. Designs have even been changed to meet the market need to decorate, so people intricately or simply draw small animals and symbols on their wrists, shoulders, and in scandalous places. The second value is the conservative need to retain “pure” skin (NPR). Tattoos and body markings have historically been taboos in American society and especially in the workplace, discouraging the need to desire tattoos of any sort (NPR). However, because of mainstream media and celebrities, tattoos have slowly become more and more acceptable, but not by much. Hennas, on the other hand, are made from various crushed herbs and peppers that stain the skin and remain dark for two to four weeks, and removes itself naturally–it’s a temporary tattoo. Since it’s temporary, people are able to emulate the authenticity of Indian culture without seeking its meaning or dedicating themselves to learning about the Indian customs and traditions that come with henna tattoos. Within two to three weeks, people who wear henna just for the look can return back to normalcy with ease.

Growing up in Fremont, CA, I have had the privilege of learning more about Indian culture due to the largely Indian and Asian demographic. Cultural weeks in high school consisted of foods, dances, and more celebratory activities that explored the exoticism of other cultures. When it came to receiving henna tattoos, however, I also fell victim to receiving designs I paid no real attention to. I tend to go on rants regarding the sacredness of Polynesian and Pacific Islander tattoos because I continue to study and respect the symbolism and stories that fall behind every design; but when it came to a tattoo I knew I would not have to keep, I became a hypocrite and ended up offending my Indian friends with mindless $20 designs of waves and animals in Mehndi ink. I had the privilege of taking advantage of a culture I tried to appreciate.

Even with the attempt to celebrate a beautiful tradition from the Indian culture, American capitalism comes along and takes something wonderful for granted.

Avatar the last airbender

Acculturated Henna Tattoos


“Beyonce Henna Design.” Kelly Caroline, http://www.kellycaroline.com/2016/02/beyonce_henna_design/.

“Indian Wedding Mehndi Manish and Neha Anantara Riverside Bangkok.” Thailand Best Wedding Photographer Cinematographer Pre-Wedding Koro Studio | Bangkok Hua Hin Phuket Samui Ayutthaya Chiang Mai Krabi Phi Phi Pattaya Lanta Sukhothai, 4 Apr. 2015, http://www.korostudio.com/indianwedding/indian-wedding-mehndi-manish-and-neha.html.

“Tattoos Still Taboo?” NPR, NPR, 22 May 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/05/22/186023466/tattoos-still-taboo.

Olivia, Aarti. “11 of the Most Culturally Appropriated Indian Accessories, and What they Really Mean.” Wear Your Voice, 23 Dec. 2016, wearyourvoicemag.com/more/culture/11-culturally-appropriated-indian-accessories.