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it's nail art - but is it art?

Each week, NY-based Parisienne Cleo Le-Tan will investigate a sartorial or beauty trend from inside out in her new column 'Cleo's Closet Case.' For Beauty Week, Cleo kicks off her column with an investigation of the artistic significance of nail art.

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I am not really sure I understand nail art. Usually, as a girl, you just look at your nails, decide they’re disgusting, go down to the nail salon, and get a manicure. Or if you’re a bit of a tomboy, when you decide they’re disgusting, you just leave them. Either way, it’s no big deal. However, at an increasing rate over the past few years, there’s been a lot of chitter-chatter regarding 'nail art'. They can be flat or voluminous, covered in Swarovski’s or small cartoon characters, colourful or bland, Matisse or marbled, sophisticated or eccentric, extravagant, classic, long, short… The list is endless.

But let’s take a closer inspection of how far this has gone, how impressive and intricate a lot of the designs have become, and how the word 'art' has been so easily and cleverly bestowed upon what are just, frankly, nails. The two terms put together have become such a natural combination that we no longer even question it.

The recent proliferation of this new form of art, which can look both startlingly beautiful and absurd, has left me with a myriad of mixed feelings. To imagine Katy Perry temporarily wearing mini Russell Brands at the tip of her fingers is indeed quite surreal; or Beyoncé plastering her long claws with images of her boo Jay-Z, while transforming the Harlem-based Lisa Logan into a full-blown star of the nail art world. This world, originally pioneered by Brit manicurist Marian Newman in the late 80s, has created an uncanny crossroads where fashion types meet hip hop stars, where seven and 70 year-olds share a fetish, and where the lines between beauty, trend, fun, habit and art are blurred. 

When I recently rung up WAH Nails’ amazing founder, Sharmadean Reid to inquire about the 'trend', she had a different take: “I don’t think it’s a trend, I think it’s the norm. From the very start of WAH, I wanted to change the culture of how people perceive nails. You know how girls would get their hair done, buy hair dye and treat so many elements of their beauty regime as an essential; I feel at the time, not many women would treat their nails as an essential. I wanted to get women to treat their nails as another finishing accessory that was just as important to think about. I feel that I have genuinely managed to do that. I have made people think about a nail colour being as important to be on trend in as your shoes, your skirt or your bag.”

Valley, an upmarket salon based in Nolita was one of the first in Manhattan to offer nail art back in 2006. Co-founder Nina Werman described the early days: “when Valley opened, we specialised in hand-painted and three-dimensional nail art from day one, and there wasn't a single salon offering it in the city. True, you could go to the Bronx or Harlem and pick out basic line designs from a plastic board, but that was only offered with acrylic nails, and those salons were few and far between. The associations with nail art from the 80s was cheesy and déclassé. We were approaching the trend from an entirely different angle - as a viable fashion accessory, and we were aided by social media, the driving force behind the explosion of nail art. Valley had bloggers, editors and downtown creatives coming out to see what the buzz was about, and then they would post it. And then came Instagram... It's been fascinating to watch the ripple effect.”

But how similar is painting nails to painting full stop? Sharmadean explains, “lots of nail artists use acrylic brushes and acrylic paint, like in real painting! This girl who used to work for me comes from a fine arts background, so she would use tiny acrylic brushes, paint and treat each nail like an individual canvas.” When I asked Valley’s Werman if nail art and real art could be valued in the same way, she had a different opinion. “Art is subjective. I would say that for some nail artists, the creative impulse and desire to work in the medium of paint is similar. The monetary value is not determined similarly at all, though. Pricing nail art is about time, skill level, and degree of difficulty. Post grads write their theses on pricing art.”

LA-based on-set manicurist Madeline Poole (creator of MP Nails) has definitely taken it upon herself to make an art out of it. Madeline is the talent behind rapper Brooke Candy’s utterly insane 5 inch-long nails in her 2012 Das Me video. While Sharmadean was able to predict that the trending art of nails would become “the norm”, Madeline told me she had once seen “a young lady walking across the street, so mesmerised by her manicure that she nearly collided with oncoming traffic.” Madeline views the trend as evolving, hinting that it may die off for a time or become uber simplified. But for right now her challenge is to “keep creating things that transcend the nail art stigma.”

And if I wasn’t yet convinced by the importance of nail art, Werman from Valley told me that they once had a client literally cry because she regretted the decision to go short and cut her signature long nails.