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Permanent Behavior: Henna, Tatts and Setting Intentions

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Henna and tattoo artist, Sabreena Haque.  ((Photo by Beth LeBarge, Design by Becca Kao/KQED))

“Permanent Behavior: Getting Tatted in the Bay,” is our four-part series, about local tattoo artists. In these stories, we dive into the permanence of ink as it resides on impermanent beings.

“People really want something that brings meaning into their life,” says Sabreena Haque, a well-known henna artist and burgeoning tattoo artist. 

Henna is an important part of wedding rituals and birthday celebrations. Similar to tattoos, henna plays an important role in times of transition.

Sabreena says the practice of receiving henna, which involves patiently sitting still and letting the paste sink into your skin, is an opportunity for people to set intentions. “As the henna fades, that’s when the intentions deepen,” she says. 

After the paste has faded away, the memories of the experience and thoughts about how to move forward linger.

Sabreena Haque focuses as she does a tattoo on someone's forearm
Sabreena Haque focuses as she does a tattoo on someone’s forearm (Beth LaBerge)

Sabreena’s work is a mixture of calligraphy, defined patterns and artistic touches of nature. Her love of body art goes back to time spent visiting family in Pakistan  — specifically wedding hopping with her grandmother, who liked to party.

“We would go from wedding home to wedding home,” she says. “And there I started to learn about henna, also known as the mehndi.”  Sabreena practices her craft at weddings and baby showers, and has even expanded to break-up henna and henna for men — “menna”, as she calls it.  A few years ago, she jumped into tattoo work.

Sabreena says there’s a major difference between the act of giving someone henna and giving someone a tattoo, but both involve sitting still, setting intentions and having art added to your body as an act of personal agency.

This week, Sabreena tells us about her family and her craft, and shares what philosophy has seeped into her by way of doing body art for the community.

Read the episode transcript here

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Sabreena Haque. 

Pen: Henna is done by people from so many different backgrounds, right? 

Sabreena: Yeah, let’s talk about that. I think it’s really important. Henna is a natural plant dye, it is a leaf that grows on a bush, and it grows best in arid, dry climates. So, desert areas. You’ll see it in the Middle East, in Africa, in Southeast Asia. 

India really popularized [henna] with wedding traditions and introduced it to the world. You know, Indian culture in general is so extra — we just do more! More intricate! More gold! More everything! But if you go to parts of Africa, you’ll see it being done in a very different way. The patterns are different even. 

And now, with the internet and everything, it’s practiced all over the world. And that to me is one of the most beautiful things — to see how the art has evolved and how different people from different walks of life have used this natural plant dye to sort of bring meaning to their lives and celebrate themselves.

Sabreena Haque sits in Gold Leaf Ink tattoo studio, working on her latest tatt
Sabreena Haque sits in Gold Leaf Ink tattoo studio, working on her latest tattoo. (Beth LaBerge)

Pen: So that naturally brings us to the next question is: With that expansion, how do you deal with folks from all around the world doing henna without crossing the line of cultural appropriation?

Sabreena: I think it’s important with any sort of tradition or cultural practice to educate yourself about where it comes from, you know. Just even understanding that the plant grows in desert climates and so it is a desert art, traditionally. 

That’s important and that’s going to help you do it in a respectful way.  And that’s really what it boils down to, you know, what is this person’s intention? Are they celebrating the culture or are they trying to take from the culture or look a certain way or be a certain way? 

I think that’s part of my journey; to educate people on where it comes from, what it means, those questions that always come up.

Sabreena Haque at Gold Leaf Ink
Sabreena Haque at Gold Leaf Ink (Beth LaBerge)

Pen: I’m all for cultural competency. Yep. Let’s do it. So then the henna, once applied, after so many days it disappears?

Sabreena: Yeah. There’s a beauty behind that, right? So it sets into a part of your skin, and, you know, you have to let it rest on there. The longer you keep that paste on your skin, the darker it’ll be — the longer it’ll last. Then as your skin renews, which is about (depending on the person) a week to two weeks — 7 to 11 days. That’s when it starts to sort of raise and fade away.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.


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