The Skirt: What The Fuck Is Nail Art?

"The Skirt" is an ongoing series in which Four Pins' resident lady friend, Rachel Seville, becomes the most important woman in your life.

Gentlemen, there is a revolution at women’s fingertips. I’m not talking about politics or fashion or visual art or culture or society or the state of womankind.

I’m talking about nail art.

If you have a girlfriend or (more likely) were once in the same room as a beautiful woman, you have witnessed this firsthand: women are giving an inordinate amount of care, attention, money and time to the creation of wildly intricate designs on their nails. This ain’t your kid sister lacquering her paws with some weird red nail polish called “Santa’s Cinnamon Nightmare.” This is Marwencol on the nail beds of our girls and women.

I recently plucked from the nail art pantheon some of the craft’s premiere stars for a conversation on “what this all means.” Hang on to your nail clippers, because below, Sophie Harris-Greenslade of The Illustrated Nail, Elizabeth Monson of Move Slightly, Juliet Jacobson of NMRKT, and Holly Stair of It’s Vintage demystify this singular cosmetological phenomenon.

Provenance

Like alcohol, copulation, shoes, the written word, and anything else that’s worth it, nail art is older than Jesus Christ himself. “Nail art has been around for centuries, apparently originating in India in 5000 BC, when women used to dye their nails with Henna,” explains Sophie Harris-Greenslade. “The Chinese made the first nail lacquer in 3000 BC.”

The ladies agree, however, that the Rococo nail art we’re seeing today emerged from the sludge of the Internet in recent history. “Three years ago I noticed the Japanese fad of glue-on bows, charms, and sparkle fades taking over the display walls at my manicure salon,” says Julia Jacobson. Elizabeth Monson agrees, “Nail art has obviously been around for many years, but the kind of nail art we are seeing now has been in the mainstream for about three years.”

Adds the unsinkable Ms. Stair, “I'm gonna be a 100% honest and tell you I just started seeing it a lot on Tumblr 2 years ago.”

There’s no single primogenitor here. But the argument could be made for Mimi Fukuyoshi, who many say was one of the first swish New York girls to lacquer her paws with wild abandon. Her nails are consistently thrilling, as she frequently draws on her menswear background for manicures that seem to sparkle with a kind of Austenian wit: they are definitive and elegant. Ms. Jacobson’s first nail art manicure took place at Valley Nails under Ms. Fukuyoshi’s tutelage, which sounds to me like the keratinous equivalent of Christ handing the keys to St. Peter. “I kept them on until one of my nails literally broke off,” Ms. Jacobson says. “I saved it—that’s totally gross, but I did, [and] it’s in my jewelry box along with other treasured pieces of flair.”

Apotheosis

At some point, the artistry morphed from cutesy fingertip ornamentation to something greater. “Over the last couple years,” Ms. Jacobson reflects, “I have seen nail art transition from the ultra girly glue-on bows and rhinestones to detailed freehand paintings of Givenchy Rottweilers and mixed materials such as foil and gold tape.” In fact, Ms. Harris-Greenslade explains, designers have made nail art an axiomatic element of the runway experience: “Now designers have nail designs specially made to match certain looks.”

In the late noughties, salons like Valley Girl in Nolita, Marie Nails in LA and New York, and Sakura (whose website advises, “Your beauty will inspire change in others, making the world more harmonious”) in the East Village opened and began offering Calgel manicures, which allow artists to work in minute detail and whose results last for 3-4 weeks.

In Fall 2009, the Spring 2010 Miu Miu collection caught Elizabeth Monson's eye, and her nude glitter manicure—inspired by what would become the season’s most infamous it-shoe—became a viral sensation. She’s now infamous for her runway-inspired designs, like Comme des Garcons Play-inspired hearts and Charlotte Olympia kittens.

In January 2011, Ms. Harris-Greenslade started The Illustrated Nail to promote her craft and services. Now, over 150,000 Tumblr followers lust after her studs, blades, and John Waters-esque ostentation.

Like Marduk dispensing sanctions to Hammurabi, Noah Emrich convinced Ms. Jacobson to inscribe Givenchy Rottweilers on her paws for NYFW in February of 2012, and she became that most ephemeral of creations: an internet sensation. “For Coachella I had a mudflap girl painted against a desert sunset, for 4th of July I rocked fashion patriotism with Supreme floral print, and in between I have done blood dripping, [and] a Balmain psychedelic Sphinx.”

Ms. Stair, whose talons are as long as a ladder to the moon, moved from an eager observer to rising star more recently: “Last year I embarked on a nine month mission to have claws.” She now takes cues from everyone from Junya to Prabal, and her readers expect not just a killer outfit, but a full look—head to toe to nail—when visiting.

In the meantime, a whole slew of nail artists have appeared to raise the craft’s profile—and they are always armed with a blog. London’s Sophy Robson has been creating urbanely whimsical manicures for designers for several years, but it wasn’t until a photo of a manicure that bursts with the chromatic tenacity of Fruit Stripe gum began circulating the internet that her reputation spilled beyond the ken of the fashion industry’s elite to the masses of Tumblr. (She blogs at So So Fly Nails.) Artists like Fleury Rose have been fleeing to Brooklyn for a few years now, visual arts degrees in hand, to meet the demand for luxuriously involved paws, though it’s the blog, rather than the brick-and-mortar salon or word-of-mouth, that seems to be the ticket to keratin domination.

Modus Operandi

Beneath the glitter, the trinkets, and the chemicals lurks a long and arduous process. The ladies pull inspiration from everything from runway photos to fabrics to photographs, but the real work then lies ahead.

Ms. Harris-Greenslade says a manicure can take her “anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours,” though Ms. Jacobson remarks that her average manicure takes three hours, and “an intricate hand design on all 10 fingers would be close to an eight hour project...You have to remember they are using miniscule paint brushes.”

While the cost is low for those who choose to do their own work at home, such as Ms. Monson, there is a price to pay for those who choose to go with a pro: Ms. Stair’s most recent manicure came in at a whopping $130. As she puts it, “It’s not cheap, but it’s a cheap thrill.”

And herein lies the crux of nail art. Ms. Monson could have bought the Miu Miu glitter boots and Ms. Jacobson could have bought the Givenchy Rottweiler shirt like any other fashionhead. But the rules of high-fashion dictate that at the end of that season, they technically couldn’t have worn them again for a few years, when they’d become mossy with vintage charm, rather than passe objets d’trend. Nail art acknowledges its temporality in a way that cloth fashion, with its “this is art!” rallying cry, refuses to look squarely in the eye.

Cras es Noster

What lies in store for nail art? With new blogs and salons blooming open on the daily, the future only looks bright. And as for our girls, Ms. Jacobson seems to be taking a page from the Givenchy playbook that made her famous: “I plan to have my dog Ashman's face all over my fingers at the next available appointment.” Meanwhile, Ms. Monson simply hopes her nail art “has inspired people to have fun with beauty and experiment.”

Ms. Harris-Greenslade reports from a Berlin nail pop-up called—presented without commentary—Fingerbang that men are getting in on the trend, so feel free to call Valley and request some tiny dub monks on your thumbs.

And what about Ms. Stair, whose nail length feels uniquely correlated with her fame? “This week I cut off all of my nails. That's nine months of nail growth, chopped off in an instant. I could have birthed a child in that time! I needed to start over, and now I have a gorgeous new set of acrylic claws. I feel kind of cheap and a little tacky, but there is something fucking great about looking down at your paws, seeing them dripping in [Prabal Gurung-inspired] ‘blood’ and pretending I clawed a bitch to death. That’s going to get me in trouble, but whatever.”

Rachel Seville is a writer living in Brooklyn who believes in miracles. Read her blog, Pizza Rulez, here and follow her on Twitter here.