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The traditional use of henna as a hair, skin, and fabric dye in Morocco and other parts of the world goes back thousands of years. Perhaps most famously henna is used for mehndi, or henna tattoos.
Today, Moroccan henna styles are easily recognized and differentiated from the henna tattoo designs you’ll find in Egypt, India, and other countries in the Near, Middle, and Far East where mehndi is a deeply rooted cultural tradition.
Before we talk about the various Moroccan henna tattoo styles or mehndi designs, it helps to know a little about henna.
What is Henna?
Henna is a plant (Lawsonia inermis) native to North Africa, Asia, and northern Australia. It’s used to make a natural dye that can be used on hair, nails, skin, and fabrics, and the plant has medicinal and therapeutic properties as well.
Although the ground henna used to make the dye is green, the resulting henna stain or color ranges from orange and orange-red to brownish-red.
In Morocco, henna is associated with cultural and Moroccan beauty traditions such as dying and conditioning the hair, nails, and skin as well as decorating the hands and feet with intricately designed henna tattoos.
While the color change to hair or nails dyed with henna is permanent, the color change to the skin is not.
Henna Tattoos – Mehndi
The English word henna is a derivative of the Arabic word, al hinna. In much of the world, the words henna and al hinna refer collectively to the henna plant, the ground leaf powder and paste, and the henna tattoos.
However, in countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, henna paste and henna tattoos are known specifically as mehndi, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for the henna plant, mendhikā.
To make a temporary henna tattoo, henna leaves are crushed to a fine powder, mixed with an acidic medium like lemon juice to make a paste, and the henna paste is applied to the skin, usually in an intricate design or pattern.
As the henna paste dries, the solution penetrates the outermost layer of skin, leaving a reddish-brown stain or “tattoo.”
Typically the longer the henna paste remains on the skin, the deeper the color of the tattoo. Natural skin color, texture, and age also affect the final color.
As the skin naturally exfoliates, the henna tattoo gradually fades. Most people can expect their henna design to last ten days to two weeks.
Henna in Morocco
In Morocco, henna designs are applied to the skin by a henna artist called a naqasha or hannaya.
A naqasha is always a woman and no formal training institutions exist. Instead, henna is usually learned from older women, often female relatives who pass the tradition on.
This type of training often results, after years of experience, in excellent, professional henna artists who take pride in their craft.
Moroccan henna artists sometimes add natural elements such as cloves or brewed tea to enhance the darkness of the tattoo. These ingredients get mixed directly into the henna paste.
The original Moroccan henna tool was the mrod, a simple pointed stick that was dipped into a very stringy henna paste and then used to drape lines of henna on the skin.
Today, the most commonly used tool in Morocco is a modified syringe. The sharp point of the needle is filed off, leaving a blunt tip that only gently touches the skin at points.
The modified henna syringe allows for the application of henna in very fine lines and intricate designs. This requires a great deal of practice and artistic skill.
Moroccan henna designs range from very simple, such as a tattoo ring or bracelet on the hand or wrist, to very elaborate and intricate bridal henna designs that cover a much larger surface area of skin.
DIY Henna Tattoos
Novices can experiment with applying a henna powder paste at home but are unlikely to match the designs and get the results one expects from a professional henna artist.
Henna tattoo stencils and henna tattoo kits are available to make home applications easier. And instead of a syringe, bottles with assorted tips are often used as henna applicators.
Moroccan Henna Traditions
For centuries, henna has been sought after for therapeutical usage and was believed by some to have baraka, or blessedness, capable of averting malevolent spirits.
Henna was also an integral part of community celebrations and religious holidays in Moroccan village life. Such events were an occasion for women to apply henna tattoos.
The application of henna for celebratory occasions is sometimes a special event of its own, with women and girls gathering for a “henna party” to prepare for the upcoming celebration or holiday.
In the case of weddings, Moroccan families went to great expense to entertain guests, providing celebrations that included food, music, and extensive acts of hospitality.
It was believed that celebratory events like weddings could attract negative attention from malevolent forces. The baraka considered present in henna was believed to help repel jnun (jinns) and avert the evil eye, providing villagers with a weapon to fight off calamity and destruction.
These notions still linger in the culture, while modernity has brought about new ways of understanding henna.
While still very popular at weddings — Moroccan brides traditionally decorate their hands and feet with elaborate henna tattoos — henna has evolved to become much more of an everyday event.
Often heard is the phrase “where there is joy, there is henna,” and no one really needs a reason to get henna in today’s Morocco.
Regional Moroccan Henna Styles
There are several traditional regional styles of henna tattoo designs in Morocco.
However, the distinctions between these Moroccan henna designs are becoming blurred due to both the increasing popularity of henna in tourism and the readily available images of henna designs on the internet.
Adding to this is the fact that there are no formalized systems of teaching henna in Morocco, and artists by nature are creative people who don’t always stick to prescribed “rules” or traditional designs.
Nonetheless, several different types of standard layouts or blueprints are often used by henna artists as a starting point and an efficient way to begin composing a design.
One example of such a blueprint is a henna tattoo design that begins with a specific element, such as an eye or a flower. The rest of the henna tattoo is then applied artistically around the central element.
Another example would be a mehndi design that is based on a particular body area, with no specific central element. With this second blueprint, large areas are divided into smaller shapes, and fill elements are then employed to occupy those spaces.
Fes or Fassi Style Henna
The most readily recognized and classified Moroccan henna design style is the Fassi style, which originated in the imperial city of Fes.
The least freeform of the several regional styles, Fassi henna designs most often feature geometric shapes that tend to completely cover the area being hennaed, with very few solid blocks of color and almost no repetition of a pattern.
Marrakech or Marrakechi Style Henna
The Marrakech or Marrakechi style of henna design is easily identified by its preference for floral patterns over geometric, and its tendency to leave areas of skin untouched — what painters might refer to as “negative space.”
Our senior henna artist at Marrakech Henna Art Cafe tells us that increasingly, geometric patterns are making their way into Marrakechi style.
Meknes or Meknessi Henna Designs
In between these two major styles is the Meknes or Meknessi style, which can be characterized as a bridge between the Fassi and Marrakechi henna designs.
This henna style simplifies the heavy floral shapes and inserts them into an otherwise geometric design, then fills them with geometric designs.
Shapes that are usually angular are rounded and corners get softened, but the geometric fill inside the shapes stays the same.
Sahara or Saharawi Style Henna Designs
South of Marrakech and beyond Tizi n’ Tichka, the semi-arid region of Morocco begins its picturesque meandering into the Sahara Desert.
Here, geometric patterns again make an appearance in henna designs, and inspiration is drawn from the landscape.
Often referred to as Saharawi style, the use of symbolism is common, and the designs may include depictions of the eye, hand (khamsa), and complex geometric designs.
Moroccan Bridal Henna
Something called “bridal henna” is often mentioned, but there is no specific style of henna that is used for Moroccan weddings. Bridal henna, therefore, is simply the style that is preferred by the bride.
Bridal henna is, however, associated with more elaborate designs that cover more of the hands, wrists, feet, and ankles. Designs might extend further up the arms and legs.
It’s interesting to note that traditionally, the removal of the dried henna paste was ritualized and even honored in various ways because if it fell into the wrong hands it could be especially dangerous.
Because henna was believed to protect a person in a time of vulnerability, such as a wedding, that vulnerability remained in the dried henna paste and could be used by people with evil intentions.
A similar concept can be found in Islamic tradition, in which some people take caution when disposing of hair and nail trimmings so that they can’t be found and used in black magic.
Gulf or Khaleeji Style Henna Designs
Finally, a modern style of henna has emerged in Morocco in recent years due to the increased demand for henna by tourists.
This is a simple floral style called khaleeji, in reference to the Persian Gulf region.
While it can be done in a professional manner, it is usually executed sloppily in just a few seconds by women with little experience, talent, or respect for the henna tradition.
Unscrupulous, untrained, and often aggressive, these women think nothing of accosting tourists and applying the notorious “black henna,” a dangerous chemical substance.
Beware of Black Henna
The term “black henna” is a misnomer because it’s nothing like natural henna. Instead, it’s a dangerous chemical called paraphenylenediamine or PPD.
PPD is a substance that’s most commonly used as a permanent hair dye. However, due to potential negative side effects, many hair color manufacturers avoid its use.
Black henna can cause irritation to the skin and severe allergic contact dermatitis. It’s toxic when ingested and may be associated with cancer.
It is important to avoid these charlatans who wander the streets in tourist areas, offering black henna tattoos to the unaware. Instead, seek out a professional tattoo artist who can offer 100% natural henna with no added chemical agents.
At Marrakech Henna Art Cafe, we guarantee the use of only 100 percent natural henna, and we are the only henna providers in Morocco to be certified by the International Certificate for Natural Henna Arts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Both terms can be used to refer to a henna tattoo. Henna is an English word derived from the Arabic word al hinna. In English and in Arabic-speaking countries, henna and al hinna can be used for the plant, the ground henna leaf paste, and the henna tattoo. Mehndi is a word derived from the Saskrit word mendhikā and it refers specifically to henna paste dye and henna tattoos.
Henna paste usually dries to the touch in about a half hour. Leave the henna paste on the skin for at least 30 minutes to an hour for a faint henna tattoo, and several hours or even overnight for a deeper, darker stain. The longer the henna is in contact with the skin, the darker the stain will be and the more time it will take to naturally fade away. Due to oxizidation, some darkening of the henna tattoo occurs even after the paste is removed from the skin.
Henna tattoos are not permanent and will gradually fade away in 10 days to several weeks, depending on how long the henna paste was left on the skin and how dark in color the henna tattoo was. Some other factors such as skin type and body location can affect how quickly henna tattoos fade, as can exposure to chemicals such as chlorine.
Black henna is not natural henna. Instead, it’s a toxic chemical substance called PPD that’s used in manufacturing and in some hair dyes. Despite the fact that exposure to PPD can cause respiratory problems and that direct contact with it can cause severe skin irritation, PPD is sometimes used to make “black henna” tattoos that are blacker in color than the orangish or reddish stains produced by natural henna. PPD is not approved for use as a skin dye and it should be avoided.
Sources: The history and process of henna is a fascinating phenomenon, and we are indebted to the authors of Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco; Eshkol Hakofer, a Research Blog About the History, Culture and Religious Significance of Henna Art; and The Henna Page for much of the information provided in this article.
About the Author
Lori K. Gordon is an American artist and businesswoman who has lived in Marrakech since 2014. She is the Founder and President of Six Degrees Consortium, a US-based non-profit organization, Founder and President of El Fenn Maroc, a registered Moroccan charity, and co-founder of Marrakech Henna Art Cafe.