This story is published in conjunction with Storyboard, Tumblr’s home for original journalism.
Last May, at a high school in a small town just north of Winnipeg, Canada, a teenage girl came out. When a group of bullies began taunting her, calling her “weird,” 20 students came to her defense. “We all decided to paint our nails rainbow to show our support,” says Nikki, 14. “[We] told the people bullying her that it’s so mean and wrong.”
Now, every month, Nikki and her friends continue to paint their nails rainbow as a show of solidarity. When other students have come out as gay, they know they’ve got a gang of defenders to back them up. “We’re like a big support group,” Nikki says.
Remember when neon nails were all the rage, plastered on the pages of every fashion glossy? Back then, it may have been little more than a chic fashion accessory. And yet today, the idea of intricate, complex, even meaningful nail art has taken on a kind of life of its own.
Over the past three years, the nail art phenomenon has launched fan clubs and DIY communities all over the country. It has carved a niche in the fashion industry, with beauty editors paying as much attention to elaborate runway nail designs as they do to hair and makeup. (Chanel recently sent models down the runway with geometric, two-tone manicures.) It’s found celebrity endorsers, and prompted legitimate gallery shows (as well as sparked debate over whether nails can be a form of “fine art”). And even amid a recession, nail art seems to be thriving: nail care in U.S. department stores generated nearly $30 million over the first 10 months of this year, a 54 percent increase from the previous year, according to the NPD Group, a company that tracks cosmetic trends.
Dozens of salons now offer resident nail artists—a career that, only a few years ago, nobody believed existed. “I really kind of found my dream job,” says Brooklyn nail artist Fleury Rose a fine art student turned nail artist who operates out of a salon called Tomahawk.
Nail art may seem like a new phenomenon—but it actually can be traced back centuries, when the Chinese were using enamel on their fingers to give their nails a pink finish. In the 90s, hip-hop artists like Missy Elliot and Lil’ Kim started sporting airbrushed and pierced nails; Lil’ Kim had a set with dollar bills encased in acrylic. And yet, more recently, it’s celebrities like Zooey Deschanel, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé who are perpetuating the trend with the mainstream (Deschanel’s “tuxedo nails” at the 2012 Golden Globes went viral), while Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj both have their own nail polish lines. Even Michelle Obama’s nail choice—the greige nail polish she wore during her DNC speech—was enough to spark commentary from Pulitzer prize-winning politicos.
But it’s on the web where nail art has truly exploded. A quick Google search of “nail art” will yield subcultures within subcultures on Tumblr, YouTube, and other social-sharing forums: fingertips adorned with the iconic “Les Miserables” logo and more pop culture-inspired images; book jackets of literary classics; miniature versions of Georgia O’Keefe and Warhol paintings; colors and symbols to combat bullying or raise awareness against domestic violence. (And let’s not forget political nail art …)
The designs are an ocular feast, so much that they’ve inspired a “nail porn” hashtag on Instagram, and nearly 2,000 posts a day under the “nail art” tag on Tumblr.
If that weren’t enough, nail art will soon get its own anthropological dig—by way of a Kickstarter-funded documentary called “NAILgasm,” which debuts Monday. The film, a kind of celebration of the phenom, features interviews with leading nail stylists, independent nail artists, beauty editors, and nail art aficionados around the world. Director Ayla Montgomery says she was first exposed to nail art on Tumblr (she regularly posts to her own page).
“People used to be kind of afraid of nail art or thought it was tacky, but now it’s become culturally acceptable,” says Montgomery, 27, attributing its mainstream surge to a “perfect storm” of variables. “The Internet has created its own micro-community of people who don’t really know each, but they know each other’s nails,” she adds.
A tipping point may not be long off—ever heard of nail art fatigue?—with a trend that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost become a popular joke. “It’s kind of like when slap bracelets were all the rage and then you could find one at any Walgreens and it wasn’t so cool anymore,” says Molly McAleer, who conceived the daily nail art feature on the entertainment website Hello Giggles, of which she’s a founder. Rose, meanwhile, says she’s recently seen an influx of men into her salon—requesting things like JAWS nails or intricate campfire scenes.
Intense? Sure. And yet it’s precisely that kind of community that inspires much of the work of Chicago-based artist Carlos “Dzine” Rolon. Last year, he recreated the salon his mother ran out of their living room when he was a child as an exhibition during Art Basel in Miami.
“I wanted to recreate that atmosphere in which people came to the house and chit-chatted and got to know each other,” he said, recalling how Tilda Swinton came into the salon and got nail art by Regina, whom he scouted in the outskirts of Miami. “These are the people who are so talented but aren’t always discovered.”
Dzine published a book in tandem with the exhibition, Nailed, which traces the history of nail art around the world, from Ming dynasty China to urban American communities in the mid-to-late 20th century.
“Regardless of how mainstream nail art has become, it’s always dictated a form of social class and social status,” he said. “People right now are just acknowledging the pop culture aspect of it. But what’s more interesting is how communities form around nail art, and it becomes part of their identity.”
Even, it seems, among young female activists.
In October, during National Bullying Awareness Month, 24-year-old Casey Danton garnered thousands of followers on Instagram after nail polish mogul Leah Anne Rowe posted a picture of the woman’s “No H8” nails on her Facebook page. Danton then started a blog, “Dull Like Glitter: Saving the World One Nail at a Time,” where she posts pictures of her own nails along with tutorials on how to do it.
Feminist activist and organizer Shelby Knox, 26, has used nail art to spread the word about her causes, both on her Tumblr and in public. When Knox spoke at Brockport University earlier this year, days after a female student was murdered by her boyfriend, she painted the Brockport ‘B’ in the school’s colors on her thumb and left the rest of her digits purple in support of Domestic Violence awareness. Her nails got more attention online than they did on campus, but Knox said students who noticed her nail art understood it as a modern feminist’s way of quietly honoring the young woman’s death and highlighting the impact of domestic violence.
“One of the reasons nail art is interesting is that it’s a conversation starter,” says Knox. “People ask you how you did it or what it means.”
And its meaning, as it turns out, can be as complex as the designs themselves.