When Natalia “Naty” Zamparini picks up her next client from the stoop of her Bushwick apartment, there’s nothing stooped about her posture. Despite regularly toiling for hours over hands, feet or the curve of a naked head, she stands upright. Her black hair is slicked behind small gold-hooped earrings, a black cold-shoulder top hangs loose against her body. Half of her face is covered in a cloth mask that’s bejeweled with silver threads over olive and brown hues.
Up one flight of stairs and to the right, her Brooklyn studio is just large enough to be cozy and not claustrophobic. A crimson velvet backdrop with red beaded necklaces leans against one corner. At the opposite corner, a tattoo table awaits its next body. Hand-painted ceramic masks — the copper, gold and red ones she sells online — hang parallel to the half-masked faces of their maker and the latest guest. Her clientele list has been star-studded with the likes of Indya Moore, Iniko and Matthew Broderick, but she’s far from boastful.
Zamparini sits across her client like a confidante, taking their left hand and laying it over two brightly colored tablecloths. Her playlist, featuring Afro-beats, runs low in the background as she prepares the paste and readies her guest. She waits to hear the client confirm they feel at home before beginning. As she paints, a few veins in her neck spring to attention. They — and the measured movements of her fingers — betray the sharp edges of her focus even as her conversation style is soft and soothing.
When Epicenter spoke with five of Zamparini’s friends and clients, they all agreed there are three traits that define her: she is conscientious with her art, caring about others’ physical and emotional comfort, and light in spirit and conversation.
A mehndi moment
“She took so much care,” said Shumi Suttles, a Bed-Stuy resident of Indian descent, about Zamparini’s first time doing her mehandi, or mehndi. It was in 2021, just before a rather important occasion in Suttles’s life: her wedding. Zamparini worked on her feet and hands for about six hours, always checking on Suttles’s comfort level.
It was a rare moment of calm during an often hectic wedding time, Suttles said. It didn’t matter that her family kept entering and leaving the room where Zamparini was doing the henna. The activity around them fell away as they chatted about their lives. Suttles recalls being “mesmerized” by Zamparini’s work and in awe of her backstory.
“It almost feels like there was some magnetic pull for her to do henna, like it’s her calling … like my ancestors are inside Naty,” Suttles said.
Zamparini had just graduated college when she started to use the henna cone her friend handed her. Her credentials — a bachelor’s in fine art and graphic design — made her the “designated henna artist” among friends. She knew then only that henna was “very big” where she had been raised. The demographics of her Queens neighborhood, Ozone Park, had started changing in the 1990s: from Italian to Indian, Guyanese and Trinidadian. All were cultures that practiced mehndi.
“So the commercial avenue started changing and you would see these stores and you would see the kids in school with henna,” Zamparini recalls.
While her cultural exposure has a lot to do with where she was raised, she later unearthed that henna also connects to her ancestry through the migration of people from Turkey and Greece to Argentina, where she was born. It was a re-education, a commitment to “learning it in a professional manner, treating it with respect.” She would ask deceptively simple questions that took her down henna rabbit holes: Where was it really from? How is it made? Why is it used? Through her research, Zamparini began embracing pure lawsone, the dye molecule from leaves of the plant Lawsonia Inermis, whose earliest use is traced back to ancient Egypt. She had also incorporated fruit-based jagua gel, whose origins among the indigenous tribes of the Amazon lay close to her native South America.
The point of no return
The craft was at first a casual relationship that “came in and out of [her] life” for five years until she finally took it seriously. She had been asking herself how she was helping others in her fashion marketing role at the time. But the culture of corporate fashion felt less and less aligned with her style and values.
“If I am going into work and I’m photo-retouching a model just to sell a piece of clothing that I know the price is actually just a couple of dollars but gets resold at $200, what am I actually doing?” Zamparini said.
She was sick of corporate life; done with the capitalism and consumerism that took her away from simple pleasures like spending time with nature and having intimate chats. “I wanted human connection,” Zamparini said. When henna showed up in her life through a few friend requests that slowly turned into a steady stream of clientele, she returned to her question of how she was contributing to the world.
“I realized I found an answer in being able to talk one-on-one and have more inspiring conversations regarding body positivity, open minds, thinking outside the box,” Zamparini said. As a way to break the ice during long sessions of such an intimate art form, her small talk bulged with big questions in the same vein as the ones she’d asked herself: ‘What are you doing with your life? Are you happy in your work?’
Zamparini’s own answer was clear. She never went back.
The art of body positivity
There are lessons, though, that the corporate world taught Zamparini. For one, it had the chiaroscuro effect of supplying a contrast in experiences. In fashion marketing, she saw firsthand how the pursuit of perfection based on arbitrary beauty ideals can wreak havoc. In her henna work, she sometimes does cover-up designs because clients are self-conscious about a certain body part — but the designs are temporary and often uplift, rather than conceal, the trait.
“I work on the body and I can alter that image, but I’m not doing any surgery, I’m not doing any Photoshop,” Zamparini said. “And you really can shift the mindset, without any of that, of a person to accept themselves more and love themselves … and it’s all through the conversations and the art, which is really powerful.”
Sophie L., a Harlem resident, can attest. She has been getting her thighs adorned by Zamparini for a while — the henna covers scars from an accident — and what she most appreciates are their deep chats on relationships. The coverings also free her to wear a bikini at the beach, something that once felt out of reach.
Reine Sudara, a former New Jersey resident who now lives in California, also felt the power of this effect back in 2018. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in January of that year. During her 15 rounds of chemotherapy, Sudara stayed at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Jerome L. Greene Family Center in New York City. She had lost her hair, and one day happened upon Zamparini’s Instagram account.
“I was trying to find something good with my baldness,” Sudara said. “I’ve had henna tattoos before, but I think I was searching for something that’s mimicking more of what a real tattoo looks like. And I was very intrigued about the jagua [tattoos] that she was doing so well.”
There was something else that struck her about Zamparini’s IG: a maternity photo shoot post. Before Sudara had been diagnosed, she and her husband had been trying for a baby for about six years.
“So when I saw that very intricate maternity [photo], like a belly photo, I guess I saw my head in it,” Sudara said. She messaged Zamparini just to inquire about adorning her bald head and was pleasantly surprised at how fast things moved. When Zamparini met her and her mom at Hope Lodge, she asked Sudara about her favorite designs.
Penguins and turtles, Sudara told her. So Zamparini put a turtle on the very back of her head and a penguin or other bird on the side of her ears.
A few days later, she and her husband were heading to Canada and stopped at a gas station.
“There’s this heavy, tattooed man who looks at me for a sec and says, ‘respect,’” said Sudara. “He thought it was real. And my husband’s like, ‘Just go with it. Like, he thinks you’re a badass.’ It was awesome.”
She played along. She was tired of wearing wigs in crowds, or those Old Navy bandanas that made her head too hot in the summer.
“I’m comfortable wearing my head bald, but I can feel a weird energy from other people,” said Sudara. “I feel like I make them uncomfortable. So that experience gave me that boost of confidence. Like, hey, it’s OK, they can stare at my bald head ‘cause they have something to stare at now.”
Keeping community through henna
Apart from celebrating physical traits, Zamparini sees her henna and jagua sessions as a way to help support mental health. Sometimes clients are going through family issues “and they just need someone to hold space and maybe be unbiased,” she says.
They might not have access to therapy, or don’t feel like they can talk to their friends about their problems.
Zamparini knows how to move between the vulnerable and heavy and lightness when necessary, says Tony Del Pino, a longtime friend and fellow entrepreneur. Outside the henna studio, she helped Del Pino through a tough time after a divorce. But she just as easily gives him notes on sprucing up his IG page for his bartending business, or shares puns with Del Pino.
He pulls up a text conversation with Zamparini where they’re chatting about a musician.
“Listen to that sax. You can feel he’s got a lot of sazón,” Del Pino said via text.
“No, he’s got a lot of saxón,” Zamparini replied.
Some clients text her back a day or two later letting her know they feel better after their chat, and move past stranger status and towards friendship. It happened with Suttles and her husband George, who said Zamparini is now part of their circle of friends. And Zamparini, who is apprenticing with a permanent tattoo artist, recently inked George with a traditional henna-like design on the inside of his wrist.
Sudara, who moved to the West Coast years back, still keeps in touch with Zamparini. She has a 3-year-old boy now. And while her hair has grown back, the stress and hormonal changes from giving birth might have thinned out her normally thick hair. A dermatologist told her it might be an early symptom of alopecia.
“I am not going to lie to you — a part of me just wants to shave my head and go back to New York,” Sudara said with a laugh.
This post has been updated.
This is part of a series of articles exploring health inequities in New York funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.