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Mehndi: Body Art That's Not Forever

April 23, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Melany Balmforth has come to the Fandangle boutique in Orange on a recent Saturday morning to have an artist adorn her hand with a silver-dollar-sized tattoo.

"Cool, cool, cool," the 13-year-old Fullerton resident says, surveying the newly minted medallion on her epidermis. Yet Melany's mother Jacquie Balmforth looks uneasy:

"Why does a mother let her kid do this?" she says. "My husband's going to be so mad."

What will literally save Melany's skin is the fact that her tattoo is only temporary. Instead of being injected into the skin with permanent ink, the medallion has been painted on with henna and has a life of only two to three weeks.

"My band teacher won't like it," predicts Melany, surveying the tattoo with satisfaction. "But I always draw on my hands with markers anyway."

Kids, and plenty of adults, have discovered the ancient practice of henna body art--or Mehndi--as the latest way to tinker with Mother Nature in the spirit of self-expression. Teens, in particular, are challenging ideas of acceptable attire, just as they've always done.

Mehndi rapidly is going mainstream, thanks to style setters such as Gwen Stefani of the Anaheim band No Doubt, actresses Sharon Stone and Demi Moore, and Madonna, whose henna-covered hands look as if they're covered in lacy gloves in her recent video.

Yet like body piercing and purple hair, temporary tattoos have been met with mixed reactions. Already they're banned on some Orange County campuses and tolerated on others; reaction from parents ranges from enthusiastic endorsement to shock.

In the eyes of administrators at the Huntington Beach Union High School district, a tattoo is a tattoo and must be concealed from view--temporary or not.

"We take a pretty strong stand," says John Myers, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district, who didn't object when his wife got a henna tattoo. "What schools are so paranoid about is . . . that they can't scrutinize every tattoo to see if it's offensive."

Tattoos can be subtle advertisements for gangs or carry foul language or symbolism, but not all schools ban them. At Corona del Mar High School, several students have sported henna body art without repercussions.

"There's no rule at the high school or district that would prohibit it. The only tattoo that would cause me concern is one that had offensive language or was inappropriate for school," says Robert Cunard, assistant principal of Corona del Mar High.

Some schools treat a tattoo like any other fad, including body piercing and extreme hair: It's OK if it's not disruptive or somehow endangering to students.

"Teens are always pushing the limits," says Bob Boies, principal of Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach.

Often the offending look becomes acceptable over time as its shock value diminishes. Newport Harbor High has grown more tolerant of body piercing. At one time, boys couldn't wear earrings to class.

"Now we have staff wearing them," Boies says.

The administrators are more likely to challenge other more "grotesque" piercings through tongues, noses and other appendages as disruptive, he says. The students can wear henna body art or any other tattoos as long as they're not offensive.

"It always makes me happy when I know something is temporary. You rarely want on your body at 40 what you want at 16," Boies says.

Because henna doesn't permanently mark the skin, parents who otherwise would have been horrified at seeing their children get tattooed are even escorting them to the Mehndi artists, as Balmforth did when artists from the Lakaye Mehndi Studio in Los Angeles visited Fandangle.

Fandangle owner Jeannie Berryman originally planned to have just one artist give tattoos, but demand was so great she ended up booking three and she still had to turn away customers. And not everyone who lined up for tattoos was a teen.

"We had them from ages 8 to 50," Berryman says.

Kathy Dawson, a 52-year-old Lake Forest resident, had one of the artists paint a Mehndi ring around her ankle.

"I'd never have the nerve to do a real tattoo," Dawson says.

Henna tattoo artists are turning up at places where kids like to hang out and shop, including Irvine Spectrum, the Lab in Costa Mesa and Electric Chair in Huntington Beach.

Compared with traditional tattoos, the Mehndi method is quick and painless.

Typically, artists paint the skin using a cake decorating applicator or small squirt bottle, making swirls and squiggles with a brown paste of crushed henna leaves. After the image dries, it's usually set with a citrus and sugar solution. To allow the skin to soak up the stain, the tattoo should be left untouched at least three hours.

"There's no pain and no big commitment," says Rana Mohiuddin, who applies the body art at a space set up in the Lab on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Prices range from about $10 to $30 depending on the size and intricacy of the design.

"Anklets, bracelets and arm bands are popular, but sometimes they want something else. I had two old ladies come in on the weekend wanting something on their bellybuttons," Mohiuddin says.

The 5,000-year-old art of Mehndi has roots in in India, Africa and the Middle East. In India, women paint their hands and feet on their wedding day.

"We've taken it to a different level. Now it's mostly decorative. Kids are doing Celtic bands, suns, traditional Indian swirls on their arms, backs and legs," says Michael Kern, owner of Mehndi Body Art in Long Beach, which supplies do-it-yourself kits to Pacific Sunwear, Hot Topics, Charlotte Russe and other retailers.

And even adults have to worry about whether their tattoo will get them into trouble.

Tracy Smith, a 38-year-old Tustin resident, had a bracelet tattooed around her wrist instead of something visible on her hands so she can conceal it under her clothes when she goes to work.

"I work in product development. I'll have to hide it."

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