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Henna Artists Protest Ban

Santa Monica: Council is asked to reconsider prohibition, imposed over concerns about the safety of dyes and its view that the art form is not entertainment.


Roy Mayhew knowingly broke the law Thursday.

Squeezing a small plastic bottle filled with a thick brown paste called henna, he drew swirls and lines on the arms and backs of several young women at Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

The application of these designs was banned from the Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier by the City Council on a 4-3 vote in November after several people who may have received fake henna complained of health problems. But Mayhew and other henna artists say the ordinance is unfair and are calling for the council to reconsider the ban.

"We have a right to do art," said Mayhew, who's been making a living by drawing henna designs on Promenade visitors for five years.

"It's very surprising that Santa Monica, [which is] known for its artistic innovation, would choose to ban [henna]," said Jerry Rubin, a Santa Monica activist.

Rubin joined Mayhew and two other henna artists Thursday on the Promenade to defy the ban, offering free drawings to passersby.

The art form, which is called Mehndi, has existed for 5,000 years in places such as India, North Africa and the Middle East. Traditionally, people decorate their hands and feet with elaborate henna-dye designs for wedding ceremonies, religious holidays and other celebrations.

To make the dye, leaves of the henna plant are ground into a powder and then mixed with lemon juice to make a paste. The designs are temporary, lasting anywhere from one to four weeks, depending on how frequently the area is washed.

One henna design that did not disappear, however, led a woman to sue the city. According to city attorney records, the case was dismissed in September 2000--just five months after it was filed--but it raised concerns about the safety of the dyes.

"There have been complaints--a lot of complaints--that they don't use the right dye," said Councilman Herb Katz, who voted for the ordinance. He conceded, however, that most henna artists do use proper dyes.

Real henna occurs in brown or shades of orange. Mayhew said black henna, which can cause stains, rashes or puffiness of the skin, is probably hair dye.

But Katz said health problems were not the only reason the council banned henna. "We don't consider them entertainment," he said of the artists. "It's like a tattoo parlor. . . . The Promenade is for entertainment."

In the past, henna artists were only required to obtain a performer's permit from the city to set up a booth on the Promenade. On Jan. 1, when the ordinance became law, no new permits were issued to henna artists and the existing ones became invalid.

The henna artists say they deserve a space on the Promenade just like sketch artists, face painters and clowns who make balloons.

"The city's getting free entertainment, free art," Luke Chanthadara said as he filled up a tube with henna paste while standing outside French Connection, a clothing store. "We bring millions of dollars in revenue to the city, here to the Promenade."

Shahrzad Shervanloo, a saleswoman at the store, agreed. "Actually, they bring a lot of business here. The people, they're not coming only for shopping," she said. "They're coming to have fun."

Chanthadara said it wasn't much fun when a Santa Monica police officer cited him Jan. 4 for applying henna tattoos on the Promenade. He said he faces up to six months in jail for the misdemeanor, yet he refuses to stop or go elsewhere.

"We feel it's a bad law," he said. "The fact that we're out here, we're considered criminals."

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