If you’ve ever been to an Indian-based wedding or a Coachella-based music festival, chances are you’ve encountered the art of henna. This form of body art has been popular for centuries and has been culturally recognized for providing not only temporary tattoo designs, but also hair dye and long lasting nail polish. Henna is made from a henna plant whose leaves, when mashed into a paste, can stain the skin. These leaves are commonly used and found in parts of South Asia and North Africa. However, because henna is becoming increasingly popular within the fashion and art industry, the art form is becoming both a hobby and business for people who come from ethnicities outside of these regions.
This brings in Akiyo Ogura, a big name in the world of henna design. Her work has been featured in magazines such as Marie Claire and Seventeen and on TV networks like HBO and NBC. Ogura, a fully Japanese woman with a background in textile and fashion design, first emerged into the world of henna in 2001 when she happened to be flipping through a magazine and came across a photo of a henna design done by a woman who was also Japanese. This sparked her interest in the art and she started doing it as a hobby using a henna kit. By 2003, she started doing events and festivals such as “Dance Africa” and “Atlantic Antic,” where she would officially start charging people for her work and building her portfolio. This eventually parlayed into business, as she is now one of the most requested henna designers in New York City with a list of very high clientele.
As I sat down with Ogura at her cozy Zen apartment, we comfortably chatted on her couch about her work and how she runs her business. The ever-so-modest Ms. Ogura claimed that although she has achieved popularity through her work, she believes she is not the best henna artist around. Although she takes her work seriously, she sees henna design as more of a passion project. She further explained to me that unlike more traditional, intricately detailed Indian henna, her work is more modern, contemporary, and simplistic because most of her clients include brides who are involved in mixed marriages and wish to keep their henna more of a fashion statement. Her work, as I have seen in photos as well as in person, showcases beautiful paisley print-like designs accentuated with glitter and rhinestones, creating a more glitzy and flashy look.
Ogura mentioned that she uses all natural harmless henna formulas that she purchases online from reliable henna dealers. She also refuses to use black henna because it contains a toxic chemical known as PPD that can scar and chemically burn sensitive skin. Instead she referred me to something called “Jagua henna,” which is a natural-based ink that stains black but does not contain hazardous chemicals. Furthermore, as she was applying henna on to my hand to show a sample of her work, she provided me with helpful hints along the way to ensure a long lasting design. These included dabbing lemon juice on partially dried henna and heating cloves on a pan so the fumes can heat up and dry the henna, thus making the color appear darker.
After she was finished marking my hand with her artistic skill, I couldn’t help but ask how much these designs would usually cost a person who is seeking her expertise. She explained that the price depends on how much coverage the client wants as well as the style of henna, such as bridal, maternity, therapy, etc. Usually costs fall around $250-$600.
In all, Ms. Ogura’s soothing personality coupled with her obvious creative skill and mindset have made her a pleasure to interview and talk with. Her humble beginnings as a struggling art student who happened to come across something that started a pathway to her success are truly inspirational and brilliant. Her East Asian background makes her a unique stand-out in the henna business and creates a spectacular image of different cultures blending together in the art of beauty.
Photography by- Jessica Fejos, Andrew Stern Photography & Oh, Darling! Photography