Beyond the Beauty Salon: Nail Art Makes Appearances at Galleries and Art Fairs

The growing trend of nail art

Last Sunday at Tomahawk Salon in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, textile designer Ashley Strout showed an image of white flowers on a black background to nail artist Fleury Rose. She wanted the images painted on her nails. “She’s doing this print that I created at work,” Strout told ARTINFO.

This wasn’t an average trip to the manicurist. Strout sat patiently at a vintage desk as Rose, who studied art in college and eventually realized her talent for nails after moving to New York, painted the delicate blossoms on her fingers. In the next room, Bellinis were poured into hot pink plastic glasses as a DJ played a soulful song list that included Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing.”

It may have been the final day of Bushwick Open Studios, a massive art event in the neighborhood, but Tomahawk Salon wasn’t displaying the paintings or sculptures that were showcased to the public in the neighborhood’s numerous ateliers that weekend. Instead, they were creating tiny works of art that that could be worn home.

Though it’s been prevalent throughout Japan and in low-income urban areas in the United States for years, nail art has finally made its way onto the fingers of the masses. Suburban drug stores sell DIY nail art kits and Midwest nail salons offer nail art services. Even the well-heeled women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side are embracing it. The numbers show it. Department store brand nail polish sales grew 67 percent in 2011, according to NPD Group, a company that tracks cosmetic trends.

From boldly hued minimalist lines to outrageous bejeweled talons to 3-D creations with bows, glitter, and rhinestones, nail art has arrived. Designers like the Blonds, Rachel Antonoff, and Nicole Miller had it on their runways; middle-age women are doing it with their daughters; celebrities like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Rihanna regularly get outlandish designs on their fingers; and throngs of blogs dedicated to the subject have popped up on the Internet. As it becomes more mainstream, nail art is even gaining a reputation as a legitimate art – it’s made numerous appearances at art fairs, galleries, and museums.

Credit the economic downturn that started in 2008 — partially, anyway — for helping spark the trend. Women who could no longer afford expensive handbags and shoes were looking to accessorize on a budget.

“Nail art is finally hitting mainstream because it is an easily obtainable runway statement, even in the midst of a recession,” wrote Creative Nail Design (CND) nail and fashion expert Candice Manacchio in an email to ARTINFO.

Independent curator Rita de Alencar Pinto, who also produces nail art parties, sites accessibility as a reason behind its success. “Girls may not be able to afford a new outfit, or a new pair of shoes or a hairdo or whatever — things are expensive and cash is short,” De Alencar Pinto said in an interview. “But with nails, you can accessorize nails and be wearing sweatpants and you look dressed up.”  

Nina Werman, who owns the Nolita salon Valley Nails with her sister, Julia Werman, agrees that the financial collapse contributed to the nail art boom, but said that another factor added to its rise. Several of the women who began frequenting Valley Nails when it opened at its first location on the Lower East Side in 2006 worked at fashion publications like Nylon and Vogue. Soon, the work produced at the salon started appearing on magazine pages and Web sites.

“It was the media having to embrace the recession and having to give something to readers and buyers to change, affordably, about their look,” Nina said. “We never saw it drop when a recession hit.”

As nail art started to appeal to a more affluent audience, making appearances in fashion magazines and runway shows, it also managed to find its way into the fairs and galleries of the art world. Last September, DegreeArt, a Web portal that offers contemporary work from art school students and recent graduates, presented an exhibition, called “Nailphilia,” at a London gallery space. The organization displayed works by nail artists like Marian Newman, a nail technician who has painted Lady Gaga’s fingers, and Sue Marsh, who has worked her talent on the Spice Girls and the runway for Alexander McQueen.

“Everybody was noticing what was happening on the finger nails of these celebrities,” Isobel Beauchamp, co-director of DegreeArt, told ARTINFO. “We got an instant huge response from nail technicians who really wanted to be identified as artists rather than part of the hair and makeup team.”

That same month in New York, artist Carlos “Dzine” Rolon, who grew up around nail art in Chicago, staged an installation called “Nailed” at the New Museum that allowed visitors to adorn their fingers with lavishly long embellished fake nails. Then in December, during Art Basel Miami Beach, Dzine recreated the beauty parlor his mother ran out of their living room when he was a child. The result was an interactive exhibition at the Standard Spa, Miami Beach, where people could get their fingers bedazzled with rhinestones or have one of several pre-decorated nails glued on. The artist also created a photograph-filled coffee table book dedicated to the history of nail art, also titled “Nailed.”

“I treated this entire project as a painting or sculpture from the very beginning,” Dzine told ARTINFO in December. “Your hope as an artist is that what you create sparks a dialogue — whether it be good or bad. This has always been the power of art.”

De Alencar Pinto is presenting a roving nail art party that is slated to make its last stop at the art fair NADA Hudson, in upstate New York, this summer. And she has an even bigger plan in the works called Vanity Projects, a nail salon and gallery that allows clients to watch video art while getting their nails done.

“I’m working the same way as I do with fine artists with the nail artists,” said De Alencar Pinto, who has also organized several conventional art exhibitions.

Eventually, contemporary nail art might even end up on display at highly revered institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its ancient counterparts are already there — the Met owns 15th-century Egyptian finger and toe stalls, gold-sheeted pieces that cover the appendages.

Until then, nail art devotees will have to settle for admiring the colorful lines, heavily adorned talons, and sparkly swirls in magazines, blogs, galleries — and on their fingers.

Click on the slide show to see images of nail art from various artists.

See more ARTINFO fashion and style coverage on our blog Silhouettes.