Please note that this blog post contains a review of a free 10mg sample of Jagua Ink‘s new pre-mixed jagua powder product which was gifted as part of their promotional giveaway.
A contentious body art topic in the last two years, JAGUA is the new ‘Marmite‘ love/hate divider for our industry. Henna Professionals have been plagued for decades by so-called “black henna” and “imitation/chemical henna” products/users/”artists” so when an alternative (but pre-existing) body art medium began to grow in popularity, flooding the mainstream market and appearing all over our social media feeds, many seasoned professionals were understandably wary.
Unlike “White Henna” (which isn’t henna, it’s usually a skin-safe adhesive body paint with enough viscosity to be applied in the same manner as fresh henna paste – ideally an FDA & certified body art product), JAGUA suppliers were promising dark blue/black colour skin-staining properties lasting up to 2 weeks. The newer henna art population were instantly curious; the seasoned henna art population were instantly cautious. While some artists were excited at the prospect of a new colour to add to their palette, a colour that mimics the faded blueish tones of black ink tattoo art, other artists were concerned that the colour would confuse an already chemically compromised consumer market still struggling to accept that “black henna” is illegal and very dangerous. To these artists, the jagua stain looked too much like “black” and in some cases, had even witnessed some businesses further damaging the cause by marketing their jagua services to the public as “black henna”!
So, what in the world is JAGUA?
Full name Genipa Americana, Jagua (also known as Huito) is a fruit (looking a bit like a potato on a tree) that is grown mostly on the African and American continent, historically used by indigenous tribes for traditional body art. Jagua as a word orignates with the Taino, who are
“an Arawak people who were the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico.” (source).
When questioning the phonetic pronunciation of jagua as ‘Jag-Wah‘ versus ‘Hag-wah‘ versus ‘Yag-Wah‘, there are differing opinions. If asking current day Amazonian indigenous tribes (Kayapo), they have clarified that both ‘Jag-Wah‘ and ‘Hag-Wah‘ are correct. Polyglots argue that according to native languages, ‘Yag-Wah‘ would be more accurate. The final say on the correct pronunciation should come from the Taino – but unfortunately the tribe has now disappeared.
“Some scholars, such as Jalil Sued Badillo, an ethnohistorian at the University of Puerto Rico, assert that the official Spanish historical record speak of the disappearance of the Taínos, but survivors had descendants and intermarried with other ethnic groups. Recent research notes a high percentage of mixed or tri-racial ancestry among people in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with those claiming Taíno ancestry also having Spanish and African ancestry.” (source)
As it stands, there is no specifically incorrect pronunciation of jagua, however you decide to say it. But if in doubt, you could always call it by its latin name: Genipa Americana.
So how does JAGUA work?
If you are a regular to my blog/website/services then you will have a foundation level understanding of HENNA and how HENNA works – JAGUA is confusingly “the same, but different“. Made from the juice of unripe jagua fruit.The timing of when the fruit is harvested for ink is crucial as over-ripe, under-ripe or spoiled fruits can all affect the optimum staining potential. The dye molecule in the jagua fruit is the genipa molecule, and much like the lawsone molecule in henna (Lawsonia Inermis) it attaches itself to protein in our skin/nails, thus dying the epidermis until our skin naturally sheds which is typically a 1 to 2 week natural process. Other similarities lie in how long it takes for the colour to fully develop on your skin – 2 to 3 days to oxidise and deepen in colour, also heavily dependent on good aftercare. And here is where the differences begin: Jagua ink comes from the fruit (not the leaves – henna). While indigenous tribal uses take the fruit and juice fresh from the tree, methods to produce for export are expensive, involving a more complex procedure to convert it into a juice/gel or powder form, and then also ensuring it complies with the relevant certifications. Additionally, once the jagua has dried on your skin, you must WASH it off with mildly soaped warm/tepid water (hot water will open your pores and increase the risk of a reaction to the fruit acid). Then for the following 24 hours, you must be mindful not to rest your design (which will appear almost invisible, or a very feint grey) on other areas of skin, as the ink is so potent it WILL transfer to other parts of your body through contact.
Those of us with strawberry or pineapple allergies will be allergic to jagua. Infact anyone with any fruit sensitivities would benefit from a cautionary approach to jagua body art. In my personal experience an itchy skin reaction (contact dermatitis) developed a full 2 weeks after my jagua application, by which point the design had already faded, so I would strongly advise a patch test at east 2 weeks before having your first jagua body art. However, I have tried jagua products from different suppliers, and reactions seem to vary depending on the processes and preservatives of your chosen supplier. Additionally, the availability of jagua powder products now means that artists can mix their own jagua paste using custom ingredients. Therefore, extra care must be taken to obtain a full list of the ingredients used by your artist to thoroughly check for any potential reactions.
As far as my research can discover*, there are 3 main wholesale jagua manufacturers each based in Peru, Panama and Puerto Rico respectively. The most common farming method is for the jagua fruit to be forage harvested by the indigenous people, minimising interference to the local flora and fauna, and offering a sustainable employment for indigenous tribes. Each manufacturer will then process the fruit and its juice per their own methods to prepare for certification and export. From the little I know of the process I am of the opinion that the jagua manufacturing process is still in its infancy and needs to find some standard regulation across the industry due to the specific and varying intricacies of processing a fruit for exporting for skin application. I believe the henna industry could also benefit from some standard regulation also, though the rate of reaction to ground, dried leaves (not dissimilar to tea) is significantly lower.
*and my knowledge of manufacturing is very limited due to available resources.
Jagua – My First Impression
My first encounter with jagua happened in 2015 through Henna Visa who was investigating the possibility of introducing her own jagua ink product. She sent a 20ml sample of her prototype jagua gel as sourced and developed with the Darien Initiative – part of a family run group of social enterprises operating from the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. We received the bottled tester gel in the post, which I then decanted into cones and trialled at one of our Monthly Mehndi Meets. As the product was still undergoing tests, the sample was free, however we made a donation to the Darien Initiative towards their cause. More on the Darien Initiative later!
As a group of henna artists, we were at the time very excited about having a new colour to work with, but our initial response to it was mild shock at the difference in texture. It felt a lot like watery jam (jelly) – stringy but it would spring back on itself, rather than drape. Also, we found that dots and vines would need to be drawn out and filled in, rather than squeezed out and achieved through cone pressure. After the initial excitement and buzz of jagua as a new body art medium passed, the majority of us found it quite anticlimactic. The blue tones seemed unusually cold, at first vanishing before developing in colour 2 days after application. It paled in comparison to the blooming warmth of henna. Additionally, without any context or history of the jagua fruit, we all struggled to connect with it. The recommended retail price for jagua gel (£1 per 1ml) was also substantially higher than henna paste (approx. 2p-3p per 1g), which definitely frightened off a lot of henna artists. And so a couple of us took it home, re-froze it, played with it, but ultimately the majority of us shelved it.
Jagua – Mixed Reactions
By 2016, jagua body art was quickly taken up by the body art market, flooding it, to many mixed reactions (pun intended). I felt no connection to it, unlike the deeply rooted empowering history of henna, so I quickly disregarded it as an alternative. Meanwhile, artists like Penney Halcyon Douglas were pioneering new methods of combining jagua with henna to achieve a spectrum of colours AND sharing the results with the community. From these results, Penney was able to create body art with multiple shades, and also introduced temporary eyebrow make-up using the henna-jagua (newly dubbed “Hengua“) mixtures. Ever intrigued, I invested in some jagua gel to experiment with making my own eyebrow paste (with great results by the way), but remained extremely cautious about offering jagua body art services to my clients.
While one half of the community followed these experiments avidly, inspiring their own tests, the other half of the community continued to view it with trepidation. For some of our henna community who have been fighting literally decades against the confusion and danger of “black henna”, this new fruit ink was blurring the lines for an already confused customer base. ALSO, many countries had yet to even certify insure jagua body art since it had not attained the relevant test results and certifications (even in 2018 jagua is currently not yet certified in Canada, for example).
2017 then became the year of reactions to jagua fruit ink, with some key industry influencers revealing that their citrus allergies were now flaring up with jagua fruit ink and the newly launched jagua powder. Various artists began to notice their own reactions to prolonged exposure to jagua. Reports of contact dermatitis and photos of reactions looking similar to PPD reactions began to surface, and the cautious artists became louder in questioning the professionalism of trading in a body art medium with the awareness that reactions were on the increase. How can a professional artist atone the practice of applying a known sensitizing allergen to a paying client?
Jagua – New Suppliers
By the beginning of 2018 I had practically given up on jagua but as it turned out, jagua was not quite done with me as experienced jagua artist Melissa Addams was announced as one of the instructors at the East West Mehndi Meet in Hungary that I was due to attend. There was a genuine feeling of ambivalence amongst fellow EWMM attendees towards this news. While there was no denying Melissa’s artistic credentials, we were not overly seduced by jagua with its associated risks. Melissa may or may not have realised, but she had a tough audience to impress at the EWMM – and impress she did. With more information on the history of jagua body art originating from the Taino people, bringing her own rooted connection to the communities still using traditional tribal jagua body art, as well as explaining the proper pronunciation of “jagua” (as mentioned above), Melissa slowly but surely coaxed many of us back into giving jagua another try. She introduced her alternative source of jagua supplies, forage harvested from Peru. Her new items included pure jagua powder (straight powdered jagua fruit) and pre-mixed jagua powder (powdered jagua fruit pre-mixed with xanthan gum emulsifier, with citric acid preservatives). We were taught how to mix each of these powders, given recipes and finally, full demonstrations on how jagua body art could be really, truly beautiful…
Armed with this new information and inspiration, I purchased my first sample pack of pure jagua powder to trial back in my studio. Spoiler alert: It was a big fat fail as I put it into my henna paste mix, left it to dye release and ended up with no dye from either the henna OR the jagua. It seemed my understanding of jagua continued to need more work.
Jagua Ink: A Family Business
Now while all this debate and drama was happening in the temporary body art industry, the Cook family were quietly formulating their own powder product. Way back in 1981 the Cook family relocated with their children to the Darien Gap (a belt of undeveloped swampland and forest between Panama and Colombia) to set up Vida Ministries. The family assimilated and grew up among the indigenous tribal community of the Choco-Indian reservation. Contrary to the long out-dated perception of Christian missions as evangelism and conversion, Vida Ministries took the modern mission of providing aid without requiring conversion, alongside an understandable and culturally adapted presentation of their beliefs with the hope that people will choose to follow the teachings of Christianity, without removing them from their indigenous culture in any way.
In their +35 years of living with the community the family enabled the development of a one room facility into a 48 bed hospital – often providing the ambulance service themselves with their family jeep. They facilitated a vaccination program which reduced the child death rate from 65% to 10%, and formed a regional radio station which broadcasts not only local news, issues and economic information, but also educational programs – and has become a vital form of communication. From this beautiful connection to the Darien region, they created the Darien Initiative aiming to protect and help the tribes to live the way they want in the current changing world through education or by improving their situation doing what they know (for example basket dyeing/weaving and bow and arrow fabrication). From this also came Sunara Farms (an agricultural cooperative with the objective of finding markets for the local, natural resources) and finally, Jagua Ink.
“Plant a seed of charity and harvest for a lifetime” – Darien Initiative
Over the years, the Darien Initiative/Jagua Ink has supplied numerous international jagua artists and suppliers, often assisting with product development, lab tests, certification processes and packaging. Jagua suppliers who invest in wholesale jagua gel or juice from the Darien Initiative/Jagua Ink include Nature’s Body Art, Jagua Japan, Jagua Canada, Inkbox tattoos, My Henna Germany, Jaguahenna, and Jagua Gel (Ukraine).
Forage harvested from wild rain-fed jagua fruit trees, the tribe teams handpick the ideal unripened jagua fruit based on inherited experience and expertise. The timing is crucial as over-ripe, under-ripe or spoiled fruits can all affect the optimal staining potential. Wages for fruit picking are calculated by the amount of fruit foraged, which offers a lucrative way of increasing one’s weekly income. This fruit is then processed and frozen on the same day within a HACCP certified food grade facility, and does not involve freeze-drying, additives or preservatives, thus promising a “100% pure jagua” product with a 3 stage quality check. Variables such as how much pulp to leave, the age of the fruit (determined by the fruit peel), whether the fruit is good/bad and the volume of the each batch is all overseen by the tribe team. Any lab tests/science results are in turn shared with the tribe team to involve them in the entire process. The Darien Initiative/Jagua Ink also boasts a 96% recycling rate from tree to tattoo as any imperfect fruit is fed to the sheep (charged with maintaining the surrounding grass), and the fruit grindings are composted.
All of this, I think we can agree, sounds incredibly informative, transparent and impressive.
Jagua Ink: My Review
So now we reach late 2018, with a slightly jaded and weary experience so far I begin to see sponsored posts in my social media feed, promoting their new jagua powder as “not the first on the market, but by far the best” due to its lengthy development behind the scenes. I spotted a giveaway post following my 2 week visit to Hong Kong where I had met with a fellow body artist who has chosen to move her business focus towards jagua over henna. She had told me how she had recently switched to Jagua Ink due to concerns over an increase in client reactions to her previous jagua supplies, and so I tagged her in this prominent Jagua Ink promotion hoping that she may win the 100g jagua powder. Unexpectedly, I was then contacted by Jason Cook (CEO and Founder of Darien Initiative/Jagua Ink) as a selected recipient of a 10g sample of their new product. Bemused to be selected as an “experienced jagua artist” (see above, haha), but never one to turn down a freebie (Yorkshire mindset, people – Yorkshire mindset!) I forwarded the requested information and was surprised at how quickly the sample arrived. I opened the envelope to find the [teeny tiny] 10g airtight foil packaged powder, along with 3 documents – a packing/invoice slip and two thorough product information sheets. From this, I saw that I had received a pre-mixed powder – where the jagua powder has added xanthan gum. This is an emulsifier – basically the proper word for thickening agent (a bit like how corn starch works for gravy, or flour for cheese sauce). With this information I knew that I would need to take the powder to my studio, access my EWMM workbook notes and revise before mixing it up. I was determined NOT to waste another jagua product like last time (it’s like 10p per milligram – that’s a lot to waste!) You can see my mixing experience of it on my instagram highlight reel.
- 10g Jagua Ink pre-mixed Jagua Powder
- 3ml Essential Oils (Monoterpenes – Cajeput with a few drops of Geranium)
- 70ml Water (50% rose water used for scent)
- 10-20ml Maple Syrup
I added the essential oils, roughly 50 – 60ml of water to the powder and stirred thoroughly until a fairly smooth paste was created. I then left the paste to stand for 10-15 minutes to allow for the xanthan gum to activate and emulsify. As it thickened up, I then added more water and the syrup one teaspoon at a time, stirring and checking the consistency with each addition until I was happy with the consistency. I aimed to achieve a mixture as close to my usual henna paste as possible, which a little bit of stringiness, and a lot of sticky/adhesive quality hopefully from the syrup used. Once happy with the consistency, I then strained the jagua paste through a gauze bag, into a piping bag, and then piped it into my rolled mylar cones. Surprisingly, the 10mg of powder resulted in 10 of my 7-10g mini cones. Once sealed, I then put them all into the freezer for storage until I would have time to test them out on some skin.
In total, I created 3 test designs. Two of these were bold lined designs on the fingers/hand/forearm (typically warmer with more layers to the epidermis), and one a fine lined, transfer reliant design on the thigh (typically a cooler, feinter staining skin area).
As I had mixed the powder up to my own recipe, I had optimal control over the paste consistency. I had managed to create a jagua paste that was as thick, as smooth and as sticky as my preferred henna texture. The stringiness however was difficult to achieve. As it’s a fruit based medium it still maintains a sticky jam type of texture – so while I could squeeze and drape, any line breakages would have a slight shrinking quality (imagine a snail retracting its antennae). It’s not disruptive to the application process. It’s just a difference in behaviour when you compare it to the experience of applying henna. The KEY difference for me in using my own jagua recipe was that I had added a few drops of geranium essential oil, blended with cajeput essential oil. As a result, I was able to benefit from the effects of the geranium fragrance which is said to relieve anxiety and elevate ones mood. When using henna I prefer to use lavender Bulgaria for similar beneficial reasons, so I have to concede that I really enjoyed using the jagua paste.
Once the designs had dried, I then sealed them with tegaderm medical film and left on overnight.
The following day the designs were washed off with tepid soapy water.
Left with a murky grey toned design (pictured above), it then took another 4 to 5 days (slightly longer than expected) for the colour to fully mature into a very deep and rich indigo blue stain on the fingers, hands and forearm.
The colour is so alarmingly deep and rich that it crosses your mind to question whether the ink is permanent – but to our relief by day 10 the stains showed visible signs of wear and fade (*PHEW*).
So, what is my final opinion on the new Jagua Ink powder?
My misgivings with jagua as a medium for body art have been due to a lack of:
- Information on it’s historical and modern uses,
- Information on the manufacturing methods,
- Feeling a connection to the medium
- and ultimately the rate of reactions to it
Over the last 3 years my experience has given me the history, background and modern uses of jagua through the teaching of Melissa Addams , research and the informative updates from Panama by Jason Cook (Jagua Ink). Information regarding the processing of jagua is also more forthcoming from suppliers in the form of not only certified processing plants but also an increased social media focus on showing behind the scenes updates on the production and procedures. With the ability to import powder (lighter and cheaper to ship) we now have the opportunity to form a connection to our jagua paste through our mixing process, fine tuning it to our specific needs. And finally regarding the rate of reactions, suppliers have now linked the majority of contact dermatitis reactions to the use of citric acid/preservatives in the jagua products. This knowledge has been shared amongst the community of jagua manufacturers to ensure improved safety across the market – and thereby vastly reducing the risk of reaction. All of this makes me very happy to begin to embrace jagua body art.
I will still refrain from offering jagua body art in a fast-paced festival setting, preferring to reserve this for in-studio appointments only. I will also continue to require clients to book in for a jagua patch test 2 weeks prior to their booking to ensure no delayed onset reactions, and also provide them a thorough list of ingredients to check for any potential allergens.
- YES! We have the safest possible jagua product yet from a credible and transparent manufacturer who is able to work with professional artists on safety and certification.
- YES! We have a jagua manufacturer who is dedicated to providing valuable, sustainable aid and preservation of indigenous lifestyles by putting profits back into the initiative to continue their work.
- YES! We have a jagua manufacturer who is happy to spread information on the current uses of jagua within the tribal communities.
- YES! We can now have more control over our own jagua paste.
- BUT! Maintain your professionalism when adding any new service to your body art business, and always, always ensure that the safety of your client is paramount.
Thank you so much for reading this very lengthy blog post. Here’s a lil reward for all your hard work:
Bonus picture gallery!
Here is my use of the same jagua paste with the transfer/stencil technique as used by tattoo artists