Thursday, July 9, 2009

Henna in The Heights

I have to admit, I drive a little too fast up and down Yale. I think part of the reason is that I am never going anywhere actually on Yale. It’s not a destination for me. It’s a route. As I zip up to 19th Street or head south, avoiding the train on Heights, I miss things. I never used to think I did. There are the “antique shops” and the crazy, bright green real estate office. I thought I had a handle on what was happening on Yale. That was until I went down Yale as a passenger. And my husband doesn’t drive nearly as fast as I do.

We were driving along, and as I stared out the window all sorts of things popped out for me- most notably a store front tucked in to a spot that had never drawn my eye before. What grabbed me was not just the bright turquoise trim of the building, but also the poster of a hand decorated with traditional Indian henna tattoos. What was this all about? I was curious and couldn't wait to investigate.

The Original Henna Company store front on Yale, just over the fence/north of the newly renovated building that houses Anytime Fitness

As luck would have it, shortly after I was Freecyclinga bunch of stuff, I recieved an email from a woman named Soniya regarding an item I was unloading. That was luck, you see, because Soniya’s email signature says “The Original Henna Company, 1130 Yale St.” A HA!!

I popped in to her sort-of tucked away shop on Yale a couple weeks ago to get the scoop. I was delighted by all the gorgeous pictures of henna tattoos she had done. Some simple. Some elaborate. All beautiful. Before going by Soniya’s shop, I was aware of henna tattoos and their traditional use for Indian weddings, but I had no idea how many different reasons there are to get henna done. Soniya told me that she has a lot of people who just get it just because it’s pretty. People will come in with their own art work and she will duplicate it in henna for them. She has done heads of cancer patients and written scripture across people’s backs. One woman had her do a design down the entire length of her body. Just because it’s pretty. I can see that. She also has women come in to get henna on their pregnant bellies. One of Soniya's favorite belly tattoos is a gorgeous tree with the symbols for strength and patience on each side and the baby’s name written in Hindi on the trunk. I was bummed I had missed that opportunity to do something like this, having just had a baby less than 2 months before. Maybe next time (Did I really just say next time?).

Traditional wedding henna

Pregnancy henna

Another great customer base she has is people considering real tattoos. Henna is like a try-it-before-you-buy-it option. People who are considering something large or conspicuous can test drive their design by living with it for a couple of weeks before getting the needle. Parents have brought in teenage kids who think they want to have a tattoo. Brilliant. Henna gives you a real sense of what it’s like to have a tattoo without the permanence.

Some examples of henna as temporary tattoos.

Of course I wondered how Soniya and her henna came to The Heights from Sugarland. Was there a demand here for her services? Soniya is a 3rd generation henna artist and started training in India at the age of 5. She and her family moved to Houston (actually Sugarland) when she was 13 years old. Her mother and sisters still have a successful henna business of their own down there. Soniya’s years of training and experience in the family business are certainly obvious in the beauty of her work. Soniya said she and her husband were looking for someplace they could live and work and also raise their family. They found the building the shop is in and liked it, but knew nothing at all about The Heights as a neighborhood. She says she just got a good feeling about the neighborhood. She said it “was calling me.” When it feels right, it feels right. Of course, in traditional Heights fashion, neighbors were very welcoming. Sometimes people just pop in to say “hi.” She likes that it is a neighborhood that understands and appreciates all kinds of art. It’s a place where “ideas are communicated” and “people share.” Like me, she has had a lot of support from the local parents group, Heights Kids, as well.

Despite loving living here and having support from locals, the neighborhood doesn’t drive her business. You see, Soniya is not just an everyday good henna artist. She was telling me about all the events she goes to- trips to Mexico and Florida. She told me how Beyonce’s parents have her do henna at their big Christmas party every year. She has regular clients from sports teams locally and around the country. I was especially curious about this. “Are henna artists uncommon?” I asked. No, she said. They are very common, but Soniya has something special- skill and speed that come from years of experience. In fact, she was supposed to be trying for the Guinness Book World’s record for henna tattoo speed this year (She is able to easily do 50 tattoos an hour for events like wedding parties)! Guinness is going to have to wait though, since she is welcoming a new baby this fall.

Who needs jewelry?

When I was growing up, I can remember my mom putting “henna” in her hair. That henna, as I remember, was a powder. Henna dye used for the tattoos is the same base and concept but in a paste. It’s an all-natural recipe of ground leaves from the henna plant, eucalyptus oil, clove oil, lemon juice, red tea and water. All these things together make the paste, which is applied to the skin and allowed to dry. In a short period of time, the paste will fall off and the skin will have absorbed the stain. It will look orange at first but deepens to a dark brown. Soniya makes her own henna paste using henna plant imported from India from a company her family has been buying from for 50 years. Apparently it has a very low allergen possibility and is even used in other parts of the world to help heal skin conditions. Cool stuff.

The natural aspect of henna is important. Apparently, there is something out there called “black henna” and it is not something to mess with. This is the kind of thing you’ll find at places like spring break locations and tourist traps. The reason Soniya felt the need to make sure I knew about this was not just because it isn’t real or traditional henna. It’s actually dangerous. Rather than taking the time to make the labor intensive henna paste, these quickie henna shacks use a chemical dye, like hair dye. As you can imagine, this can cause a pretty nasty skin reaction. Watch Soniya’s interview with Click2Houston to see an example of what can happen and how to prevent it.

Soniya, who is expecting her 2nd child this fall

My 12 year old niece is coming to visit in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait to take her to see Soniya for henna tattoos. You should really pop in to her shop sometime for a visit. It’s so comfortable and relaxing. If you think henna is pretty but aren’t inclined to get a henna tattoo, Soniya has beautiful canvasses of her own henna designs. She also sells traditional Indian jewelry and clothing. They have some upcoming expansion plans for the shop as well, and Soniya’s sister will be able to be able to offer additional aesthetic services like hair henna by the end of the year. I have a feeling that once I get one, Soniya might be seeing more of me.

Soniya is at the shop most days and appointments are also available.

Some of the artwork the Soniya creates with her own henna designs.


  1. awwwwesome!!! i knew soniya here in doha,qatar before sh emoved to the US and she'd apply it 4 our entire huge indian family in less than an hour..and extremely beautiful henna designs,mind u!! m so glad to see her go places!

  2. I can't wait to see her attractive looking store! I know she's the best in the business...I wouldn't get married without her henna :)

  3. Soniya is the best! She did my wedding mehndi and it's still the most beautiful work I've ever seen, if I may say so myself :) Plus, she's a wonderfully kind person.

  4. The modern style statement covers henna flower tattoo in different colors and designs on various body-parts, including hands, arms, wrists, shoulders, upper back portions, and different other selected areas.