Dragon Motifs. Peacocks. The Statue of Liberty. The Simpsons. There is very little the henna artist Sara Vazir can’t do with the plant-based dye. Which is why when her clients, ranging from brides in South Asia to beauty moguls in Dubai, grew tired of the traditional brown-red stain about two years ago, Vazir immediately found a fix: white body paint. The luminous designs, tagged simply as #whitehenna on Instagram, caught the eye of Middle Eastern social media influencer Huda Kattan, who later shared snaps of the work to her 22.8 million followers. Overnight, a phenomenon was born, leaving thousands of engaged women and henna enthusiasts knocking at Vazir’s proverbial door—and crashing her Instagram account in their wake.
Thanks to its intricate, spectacularly visual nature, henna, an ancient practice used as a form of body art on both men and women and a dye frequently mixed into paste to color skin, hair, and even fabric in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, is swiftly expanding across social platforms and into nontraditional markets like Hungary and the U.S. Now, thanks to artists like Vazir, the age-old technique is finding new verve, courtesy of evolving novel designs like the seed of life pattern, shade variations, and placement options. It’s even finding its way onto the runway at London Fashion Week, where models wore stenciled-in white lace gloves at Antonio Berardi’s Spring 2018 show. “Henna is so varied,” Vazir says. “The designs [can be] exotic, sensual—they’re all beautiful. I don’t [ever] want to do anything else.”
Of course, henna wasn’t always in Vazir’s career trajectory. Born in Pakistan, where the practice is part of local culture, and raised in Hong Kong, Vazir grew up watching her mother use a toothpick to painstakingly paint the elaborate designs onto her family members’ hands. After graduating from university, Vazir started working in event management in Hong Kong. On a whim, she set up a henna stall at a fair and stoked considerable interest among discerning locals. Fast forward to when Nataly Osmann, the force behind the viral “follow me to . . . ” travel series, visited Hong Kong and paid a visit to Vazir. Osmann gave white henna yet another stamp of approval, likening the offering up of her palm to becoming “a canvas [for white paint] for a while.”