Known by different names in different parts of the world and gaining popularity for brides of all backgrounds, Mehndi or wedding henna art is a tradition that’s been around for more than 9,000 years. Part of its rise in popularity is thanks to passionate artists all around the world.
I’ve always thought of henna as beautiful, elegant, and just a little bit mysterious. So I was pleased to sit down with Kelly Caroline, the artist, and businessperson behind Kelly Caroline Henna Art, to learn more about it.
Henna, a dye prepared from the plant Lawsonia inermis, known better as the henna tree, is used to create temporary body art by staining the skin. But for Kelly, it’s so much more than that. A tradition, an experience, and her livelihood.
An Unorthodox Beginning
Kelly first became a henna artist when living in Orlando, Florida, with her husband. She says she wasn’t doing anything with her art degree, which didn’t sit well with her. One day, she decided to search for “henna” on Craigslist, and it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“For some reason, an article popped up where a lady needed a henna artist. So I called her up, and we chatted for a minute on the phone. Then we met at a mall and talked for two hours. She looked at my art portfolio,” Kelly remembers. “I asked her if it was a one-time gig, and she told me that she owned the henna booth at Universal Studios, but she hadn’t mentioned it in the article because she wanted somebody who genuinely wanted to be a henna artist, not just someone who wanted to work at a theme park.”
When Kelly admitted she’d never done henna before, she was surprised when the woman told her that she’d be the perfect fit. “She assured me that it was going to be amazing for my life because she was a psychic. So I went along with it. She gave me an outfit out of the backseat of her car that day in the parking lot and told me to wear it and show up on Monday.”
Upon arriving at her new place of work, Kelly was given a book of henna designs and was shown to a line of eager customers and told to get to work. “I just sat down and started doing it, and fifty really bad henna tattoos later, I started getting better,” she laughs.
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Bumps In The Road
Being an experienced artist, Kelly knew that things are always most difficult at the start. “I was a good illustrator; I could look at things and mimic them well, so that was really helpful. But getting used to the medium is what took the longest,” she notes. “I probably did henna on fifty or so people a day, which made for a tremendous amount of practice to get started with. I started getting really good really quickly, and I got paid on commission. Plus, I don’t like being out in the sun very much, and this was in Florida, so I was working really quickly and as efficiently as possible so I could go home.”
While Kelly was pleased with her progress and early success, the same can’t be said for her coworkers. “Some of the other artists started complaining to my manager, saying that I was taking all of their clients and working through people faster than them,” she tells me. “My manager asked them if I was doing a good job, and they said yes. So she asked them why she would stop me from doing a good job and getting through customers quickly, and that they should use it as motivation to improve.”
A Difference in Training
The most significant difference between Kelly and her coworkers, she says, is that she wasn’t classically trained in henna. “I was trained really differently. I started commercially, and then I took more traditional paths. Usually, it goes the other way around, where you learn traditional skills first, and then you can go and amp up your speed. Now, any time I sit down to do this, and it’s a client who has had it done before, the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Oh my God, that took way less time than it ever has before!'”
Despite her coworkers’ initial hesitancy to understand her style, Kelly looks back on her time at the henna booth at Universal Studios with fondness. “Now, I see how much practice I got in in the six months that I worked there. It was like I had worked there for three years, five days a week, because of the constant stream of people. I’m really thankful for my experience there.”
Taking The Next Step
After getting pregnant with her first child and moving to Michigan, Kelly realized that she wanted to get back into the world of art and put her degree to good use. She decided to put a website together as her first step. “I started doing basic blog posts about henna, and putting up pictures of work I’d done, getting my SEO, knowing exactly how to get into the mind of my audience. The two words that kept popping up were ‘henna’ and ‘Michigan,’ so for my keywords, I used ‘henna Michigan,’ ‘henna artist Michigan’ and ‘henna for weddings Michigan'”.
It took about two months of continuous blog posts before Kelly started getting calls. “It just really went off from there,” she recalls. “In the beginning, I probably did three parties a month or so. Now, between myself and two other artists that I hire out, in our busy season between March and September, we’ll have four or five gigs a week.”
Developing Her Wedding Henna Business
After her initial success, Kelly acquired a studio in Canton Township, part of The Village Arts Factory. “It’s a large, 17,000 square foot artists website that originally belonged to Henry Ford. It was a non-profit, and after that, it was kind of forgotten about before it was renovated over five years.” In addition to going to events to offer her services, Kelly uses the studio for private appointments.
Kelly’s clients include Indian, Arabic, and Turkish brides, as well as people who admire the art of henna but don’t necessarily have ties to the cultures it originated from. “Different cultures call henna different things. Arabic and Indian people refer to it as ‘mehndi,’ so they’ll call and as for that. Sometimes I’ll know the type of designs that they’re looking for just from what they call it. Every group has a specific aesthetic that they’re looking for, and you know to know the range of that.”
Kelly says it’s important for her to be sensitive to different cultures and viewpoints, even when that viewpoint is about her own experience with henna. “I’m very aware that I am white, not Indian or Arabic or from any desert culture, and I would never, ever say that I’m educating anyone from those cultures about henna,” Kelly stresses. “Rather, I’m listening to them and learning from them. I’m not lucky enough to have had a grandmother teach me.”
While she has had people choose not to hire her due to her background and has had to answer many questions about it, Kelly bears no hard feelings and says she totally understands this point of view. “Cultural appropriation does come up, and it’s something that I’m happy to talk about. All of that is understandable. When people ask me how I got into henna, I tell them that I’m an artist, and when I saw henna, I fell in love with it as a beautiful art form. If it starts to get past the comfort zone for anyone, I remind them that I’m an artist and henna is my medium. I let my work speak for itself. The way I began was certainly not traditional, but I’ve taken great pains to educate myself since then to learn and truly appreciate the culture and historical side of henna.”
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A Typical Wedding Henna Package
With most weddings taking place on Saturday, Kelly typically does her wedding henna art on a Thursday. “It takes forty-eight hours for the henna to fully oxidize and darken. Initially, it gets laid on very wet, and then it falls off your skin, and you’re left with a bright orange-colored stain that oxides over that time. It always looks best two days after application,” she explains. “I’ll go and do the bride for three hours on a Thursday, and then I’ll do the mother-in-law, the sister, the aunt, people like that, which is typical for an Indian wedding.”
After the bride has her henna done, she will sleep on it and then take it off in the morning in the shower. “The longer you leave henna in contact with the skin, the darker and longer-lasting it will be. The only person who really, really matters for us is the bride, and that comes down to me being incredibly picky with the color outcome.”
“If you left it on for two hours, you would still get a great stain because I make all my henna fresh using USDA organic leaves shipped to me from India. Then I mix it with just enough water to make a paste consistency and sugar to make it stick to your skin and two essential oils — tea tree and lavender –and that’s it. The oils are only there to make it oxidize. If you just mix the leaves with water, it will be orange. But when you add the essential oils, that’s what gives it that rich, reddish-brown stain.”
Coming Together Before The Wedding
Then on Friday, Kelly has a chance to do henna for the other female guests. “The guests will come, usually about a hundred people, and they’ll have what’s called in Indian culture a ‘Sangeet,’ which is a celebration where the groom’s side and the bride’s side come together before the wedding.”
Considering most Indian weddings have up to 500 people, Kelly brings along her two other artists, who she pays hourly. “With other artists, it can take five or six hours, but I’m efficient with my event timeline, and that’s one thing that sets me apart. I do charge by the hour, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. I can do about fifteen guests in an hour if it’s just their hands.”
Wedding Henna Is Always About The Bride
And while she’s always happy to do henna for the wedding guests, Kelly says her main focus is always making sure the bride feels happy. “A bride could hate her dress and possibly get another one, but if she hates her wedding henna, that’s on there to stay for two weeks. I take my job incredibly seriously, especially since it’s part of their culture. These girls have been waiting to get this much henna. Nobody gets this much henna until they’re a bride. They get it from their fingers to their wrists and then to their elbows, and they get it from their toes to their knees. These girls have been waiting to be in this position their entire lives. I don’t take that lightly. I try to really prepare myself.”
Despite being so dedicated to her craft, Kelly is quite easy-going when working with wedding and event planners. “I’m fairly flexible when it comes to working with them,” she attests. “I’ve worked with a lot of different people, and I’m an event coordinator myself. Sometimes vendors will ask every single question and give you every form to fill out, but that’s not me. I just need your address, the time you want me to be there, the contact number for who will be there and what kind of an event it is. Everything else I can figure out. I don’t need hand-holding. I don’t need a micromanager. Just tell me when and where and check the day off. A well-lit area is ideal. I need a tiny table and two chairs for myself and the guest and a table.”
Growing The Wedding Henna Business
Thanks to many satisfied clients, Kelly saw her business grow to the point where it was apparent she needed to take on the extra artists. “It got to the point where I really had to hire more people. I was getting so many calls, especially in June and July. I was triple-booked on the weekends and was scheduling things as tightly as possible to make it all work. Sometimes I’d do three gigs on a Saturday by myself. But that was really draining because I’m not great about taking care of myself, but I need to, because I’m a mom and a wife. I can forget to eat and drink and everything. Weddings are like my Superbowl.”
With 70% of her gigs not even wedding-related, Kelly says she’s proud of how much her business has expanded. “I would say that 70% of our events now are not weddings. We do bar and bat mitzvahs, birthday parties, bridal showers – really anywhere you want women to be entertained. It can even be a party with guys and girls where the guys are getting involved.”
Marketing And Art Go Together
Kelly’s marketing strategy, which has helped her wedding henna business succeed, is as simple as it is brilliant. “My primary marketing strategy is SEO, “she tells me. “I don’t pay for a single bit of marketing, I don’t pay for any ads, I don’t do anything like that. The only marketing I pay for is for my business cards, and that’s how it’s been for twelve years. I do great blog posts with good, genuine content. I label the photos with the proper keywords and tags. It really helps that my husband built websites and did SEO work in 2008, so I could get ahead of the game.”
“But it’s all about great blog articles, excellent content, and great photographs. My main venue is Instagram because I’m not going to sit here and fight Facebook’s algorithm. They’re owned by the same person, but Facebook is just a lot more to weed through. If you can get great photographs, they’ll still come through on Instagram, so that’s my main thing.”
And though she gets hired for fewer gigs in winter, it’s still a time that Kelly fills with meaningful activity. “I travel to different places for gigs and specialty events, which is great, but typically October to February is our downtime. I’m scheduling collaborations with photographers, designers, decorators, clothing designers, and models during that time. Everybody gets together, we do a stylized shoot, get a florist going, and get makeup artists involved. Then everyone can share these awesome pictures and tag each other, and we get some work going through that.”
Wedding Henna Is An Art For Everyone
When it comes to henna, Kelly is quick to affirm that it’s not just for weddings but also for all sorts of events and people. “I’m really grateful to be in the mix with higher-end companies, and I’m happy to work with event planners as well. I’m fairly easy-going when it comes to booking. We don’t require hefty deposits, we don’t need exact specifications when you’re booking us. We take up such a tiny footprint, but we can add so much to an event to make it really memorable and unique and meaningful.”
In the end, Kelly sees henna as the party that keeps going. “It’s an experience that you can have at an event, and it lasts for two weeks. That’s two weeks of happy memories, of feeling that warmth, that excitement of the event long after it’s ended.”