Last week I walked into Vanity Projects, a "nail-art atelier" on New York's Lower East Side. My nails were a blank canvas. There, I was greeted by Rita de Alencar Pinto, the atelier's owner, and Raquel "Raqstar Nails" Nevarez, the artist who would turn my simple nail beds into works of art. As someone whose weekly manicure consists of a series of beiges, I was intrigued to watch Raquel create a museum out of Essie and Jin Soon nail polishes. After three tedious hours, I left Vanity Projects with nails covered in two Keith Harings, two René Magrittes, and some Yayoi Kusama polka dots. I had officially lost my nail-art virginity.
The nail-art craze, which reached fever pitch at the end of w012, was a bit of a short-lived trend that became popular with fashion designers, editors, and bloggers, who, as with most other trends, announced that nail art was "out" almost as quickly as it was "in."
But now the still-booming industry of nail art—which includes elaborate pictures, designs, and patterns in lieu of a simple manicure—has begun to take a more high-art spin, with images by world-renowned artists—think Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Haring—being translated intricately onto pinkie fingers. Iconic works of art, generally reproduced on posters, postcards, and mugs, are now available in the size of a small bed of a nail.
Take, for example, the Magritte nail I got from Raquel, which was a complete replica of the artist's oil painting The Son of Man. Or the Pablo Picasso drawings by artist Miho Kawajiri, who translated the 1932 painting Girl Before a Mirror across an entire hand. The fine-art nails have begun to encompass artists from countless periods, from Degas's impressionist paintings to the postimpressionist work of Vincent van Gogh to the pop art of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Even less popular artists are even receiving nail-art recognition, such as David Cook and Frank Stella or graffiti artists like Kaws and Banksy. It's surely a shock, no matter how much you believe in the ability of nail artists, to see Magritte's Ceci n’est pas une pipe written across an index finger, or Piet Mondrian's neo-plasticism re-created on a thumb.
Vanity Projects is surrounded by galleries and artisanal shops. Its owner, Pinto, is an art curator cum nail technician who sought to integrate the concepts of a salon and a gallery when she opened shop. She says she wanted to create a place where people could receive the "euphoria" that comes from beautification and pampering. “I’ve sort of modeled the program here as if it was a gallery or art space," Pinto tells The Daily Beast. "I’m a curator, and I have been for the last 13 years, so the goal was to elevate nail art so it would be more of an atelier space where the artists are doing work like they would be doing their artwork."
Her residence program allows nail artists from around the world to practice their work at Vanity Projects for a select period of time, which Pinto hopes will inspire creativity and the sharing of ideas within the studio. Guest artists include artist Caroline "BKRuby" Östling from Sweden, who specializes in intricate drawings, and Chicago-based Spifster Sutton, who is recognized for her signature graffiti-style strokes.
The nail artists at Vanity Projects have now become a commodity unto themselves, causing the line that separates nail technician and fine artist to blur. Similar to graffiti artists, the nail painters are referred to by their social-media monikers—such as BKRuby and Spifster—which creates a unique artist persona.
According to Pinto, the nail artists at Vanity Projects are pushed to the limits of their abilities and are encouraged to define their specialties.
“It’s so similar to dealing with fine artists in a way," said Pinto, who asks the nail technicians questions to help them develop their skills, such as: What are your limits? What are your specialties? Aside from the fine-art specialization, Vanity Projects integrates a gallery atmosphere by merging video art installations with the experience of a manicure or pedicure. Patrons are provided with headphones to enjoy the studio's video art, including short videos that offer "revealing glimpses into the female psyche," which ranged from humorous to serious.
According to another popular nail artist, Mei, fine-art manicures have become highly coveted. Mei is recognized in the beauty and fashion worlds as Nails by Mei and has become an Instagram celebrity, with over 7,500 followers. She has a long list of fashion-industry clients and specializes in highly creative fashion-inspired manicures—think Prada, Givenchy, or Pucci prints on your nails. But now, Mei says, she sees that girls looking for the fine-art touch. "It's so original," Mei told The Daily Beast. To meet the demand, she now re-creates iconic paintings on clients' nails, including works by Picasso, van Gogh, and Haruki Murakami. "It's not easy. That's why I like to do it," she says. "I want to make a new art world."
No matter which masterpiece gets translated onto a nail, it's clear that the skill and craftsmanship involved has resulted in a burgeoning subcommunity of nail artists. "People love art," Mei says. "Nails are just another canvas."