Sundara Tattoo owner Rayna Ross is a master of Mehndi — both henna and permanent ink

Rayna Ross, owner of Sundara Tattoo taken by Jasper Chung, courtesy of Rayna Ross

You may not find your path on your own time, if at all. Some give up, others find it later in life. Then you have those who’ve been on their own path since age 15, like Rayna Ross.

Indian tattoo artist Ross has shaken the Central Iowa tattoo scene by utilizing her skill and background in Mehndi. Mehndi is often referred as henna in the U.S., a body art using a paste created from the henna plant that is dried and powdered.

“I like to call it Mehndi because I think to me, that’s more technical,” Ross said. “Mehndi is the art form itself, the process of applying the henna paste to the skin, where henna is the actual plant name itself.”

Adopted from Tamil Nadu, India at the age of 2, Ross’s way of connecting to her Indian culture was Mehndi.

Her skills developed over time from practicing on friends, which turned into doing Mehndi at farmers markets in 2012, and pop-ups there on. Ross would say she has been professionally doing body art since 2015.

At the age of 18 and following her high school graduation, Ross wanted to follow her hopes of putting ink to skin, but her mother encouraged her with tears to give more education a try instead. Ross wanted to translate her Mehndi into permanent tattooing, but pursuing apprenticeships seemed to stifle her shift, along with other reasons.

“I really [attribute] being an Mehndi artist to the transition I had into tattooing, because I would not be this far without the fact that I’ve already been working on bodies for like, 10 years.”

Rayna Ross in front of her business Sundara Tattoo taken by Liz Brown, courtesy of Rayna Ross

In many traditional Indian cultures, tattooes are not widely accepted.

“Tattooing is becoming more modernized in Indian culture,” Ross said. “I would say it’s definitely like most Eastern cultures. Tattooing is not widely accepted but it’s getting to be more modern and definitely more accepted.”

Honoring her mother’s wishes, Ross gave college a try. “I did go to college for art originally, and then for art education, and then I switched to graphic design. Then I switched to studio art because I realized kids were not for me all day long. And I realized sitting at a computer working on graphic design stuff was also not for me all day long. So, I need something to do with my hands.”

She sought a tattoo apprenticeship, but things weren’t easy, she said. “When you are a person of color, and you don’t have any tattoos, and you kind of just look normal, you don’t have a lot of body modifications, you’re not tattooed up, it’s a lot harder to go into a tattoo shop, even if you’re a really great artist.”

Her first apprenticeship in 2018 didn’t work out. Eventually in 2019, a shop allowed her to start tattooing on skin despite not having a mentor (which she doesn’t recommend). But not having a mentor didn’t effect her ability to tattoo well.

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“With already working on bodies for 10-plus years, my skill set really just translated pretty well,” she said confidently.

Unfortunately, her second apprenticeship wasn’t a good fit either. Ross thought, “Maybe I can afford my own little studio because I’m already paying this shop out more than I was paying myself. So, it just financially, was the smarter move to try and find a solo, little space.”

Ross’s first shop was shared with the landlord, making rent quite affordable. That allowed her to purchase new tattooing equipment. Needing more space, she moved her business to Mainframe Studios. The current shop is located at 3523 6th Ave Suite 102 in the Highland Park Neighborhood.

She called her business Sundara Tattoo. Sundara is Sanskrit for “beautiful,” and Ross had picked out the name well before opening a tattoo shop, back when henna was still her main medium.

“I was trying to find something that could describe all skin tones, all body shapes — just be very inclusive to everyone,” she said.

The self-taught artist describes her tattooing style as modern floral.

While she takes requests for custom art, “I’m kind of shifting most of my work to freehand work and flash, too,” she said.

Eventually, her desire is to phase out of custom booking.

“I think I really enjoy creating my own work, my own original pieces, and allowing people to connect with them and choose things that they like for their body,” Ross explained.

Ross aims to maintain a welcoming and peaceful environment within her tattoo shop. She pushes a healthy mind, which goes along with the vegan-friendly products used and sold at Sundara Tattoo.

One of the products Ross offers is a tattoo balm she makes herself using shea butter, safflower oil and sunflower oil. It is also used while tattooing. Every client receives a complimentary jar of the balm for aftercare.

Other vegan-friendly, sustainable items used in the shop include the tattoo ink and henna.

Sundara Tattoo — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Sundara Tattoo will host at a pop-up event this Saturday, Sept. 17 from 11 a.m to 2 pm. at Liquid Seven Organic Juices. Visitors can receive Mehndi body art on their hands and arms by Ross and other artists.