Photos courtesy of Sojin Oh

The nail artist creating surreal glass nails for Hunter Schafer and Grimes

Sojin Oh's otherworldly manicures are comprised of worldly objects like seashells, snakeskin and sea glass.

by Zoë Kendall
18 May 2022, 8:00am

Photos courtesy of Sojin Oh

Last year’s glassware is this year’s glass-wear. This spring, the wares of lockdown (Sophie Lou Jacobsen pitchers, Asp & Hand tumblers, and, of course, the ubiquitous Murano mushroom lamp) have been unleashed from their homesteads and onto the runways and red carpets. Designers like Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Brooke Callahan have resurrected the Murano talismans of yore. Coperni’s recent collaboration with Heven has the entire internet clamoring for a glass Swipe bag. Despite its seemingly absurd concept, the cult brand has us sold on the idea of keeping our glassware at our fingertips. But would you consider wearing glassware on your fingertips? Like Heven with its handbags, nail artist Sojin Oh has us convinced. The LA-based creative is the mastermind behind some of pop culture’s most viral manicures, from 2020’s waterdrop nails craze to Hunter Schafer’s glass Met Gala nails.

“I’ve always been obsessed with glass. I love the way [it] refracts light,” says Sojin. It seems the nail artist was always destined to be a bit of a magpie: when she introduces herself, she tells me that her name means “bright jewel” in Korean. Sojin was born and raised in South Korea, where she spent her childhood between her bedroom and the great outdoors. While her parents worked late into the evening, she fed her nascent creativity through “daydreaming, drawing, writing, singing [and] dancing.” When her parents did have time off, however, they ventured into nature. She recalls camping next to waterfalls, foraging in forest undergrowth (“obsessing over the soil, flowers and plants” with her mother), and oyster hunting in the surf as some of “the happiest moments of [her] life.”

At age 15, Sojin immigrated to North America alone, setting up a base in Los Angeles and embarking on a career within the city’s fashion industry. After seven years working in PR and production for big-name brands like American Apparel and Yeezy, she felt the pull of nature, of the simple joys of her childhood. Sojin quit her corporate job and enrolled in beauty school. “I realised my creativity didn’t belong in mass fashion,” she says. “I wanted to do something haptically exploratory with my hands.”

The hands, themselves, mean a lot to Sojin. Her decision to pursue nail art was, in part, due to a lifelong fascination with palmistry, which posits that the hands (rather than, say, the eyes or the face) hold the proverbial key to the soul. Harkening back to the days of ancient nail art — to 3000 B.C. when, she says, manicures were more luxurious and individualised than they are today — Sojin’s work is extremely personal. Each manicure is one-of-a-kind, a thoughtful alchemy of the wearer’s persona into sculptural nail-works, conjured from glass, seashells and even snakeskin.

Sojin’s ancient predecessors inform the form — as much as the purpose — of her work. Five thousand years ago, she says, “[nail artists] were using ingredients from nature: gelatine, gold, egg whites, beeswax, dyes from rose and orchid petals, which, to me, is so poetic and expressive.” Drawing equally from these ancestral techniques and her own experience, Sojin’s work centres nature, reflecting the artist’s awe and curiosity toward the world around her.

During the time she was earning her beautician licence, Sojin was also learning to scuba dive. Her earliest designs were inspired by these underwater explorations: diamanté starfish, watercolour sea slugs, pearlescent appliqués and even the waterdrop nails that would become her signature. Sojin charts the droplet styles back to her childhood, “[they] were first seen in the 90s in Asia, but I was attracted to the organic look of them and practised diligently to make them look as realistic as possible, to the point where the nails simply look wet.”

Sojin’s work isn’t simply inspired by nature. Many of her most intricate and unique designs are sculpted from nature, itself, crafted from organic and found objects foraged during the artist’s many and frequent forays into the wilderness. On a recent trip to Central America, she collected the moss, volcanic rocks, oyster shells and snakeskin that would later be transformed into “mermaid nails”, manicures from the literal depths of the ocean

Among the shells and seaweed sourced in Mexico, Sojin’s most interesting find was less than organic: “Sea glass,” she says. “Washed up broken soda bottles that were discarded by humans but have been transformed by the ocean’s power into beautiful pieces of colourful glass.” After arriving home, she created a mosaic-style manicure from the ocean-tumbled shards.

Sojin’s sea glass look is far from her first foray into the realm of glass nails. It all started in 2020, when she was gifted a set of mini glass sculptures by friend and glass-blower Grace Wardlaw. “I realised they are the most glamorous jewellery you could have on your hand,” she says. Sojin’s spiralling glass manicures — some which take the form of flowers and insects — are impressive in their intricacy. They capture the material’s fragility and even evoke a frisson of danger (the heightened stakes of ‘breaking a nail’). However, they also bring a new sensuality to a material notorious for being untouchable. Sojin’s secret to making glassware wearable: “Us[ing] building gel, which is very resin-like, to give more longevity to the glass,” she explains. “I get to coat the broken glass pieces with gel and the sharp edges get covered and they create these globular forms.”

Sojin’s surreal glass nails have adorned the fingertips of some of pop culture’s most otherworldly icons including Billie Eilish, Kim Kardashian and even Lil Nas X. Grimes wore a dagger-like set in the futuristic video for single “Shinagami Eyes.” At the 2021 Met Gala, Hunter Schafer accessorised her sci-fi Prada look with whiteout contact lenses and a smattering of crystalline flowers. Recently, Sojin decked friend Shygirl’s nails in glass beads for a concert held at LA’s Regent Theatre. “I was in shock watching all the lights reflecting off her hands,” she says. “They looked like a galaxy of stars.”

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