@boysinpolish takes intimate portraits of men after painting their nails
"I just want the nail salon to not be intimidating for guys and break the barriers a little bit," says nail artist Jess Young of her Boys in Polish project.
Photography Jess Young
Jess Young, 20-year-old nail artist and founder of Boys in Polish, jokes that she wanted to be a nail artist because of her “Asian genes.” “I first started when I was around 11,” she says. “When I was in primary school I would follow my Mom around to her friends nail shops and it looked like so much fun.” Naturally, a few years later, after becoming a freelance nail artist and working at London’s globally-renowned salon WAH Nails, she began to wonder why it was still taboo for men to enjoy nail art.
“I’ve been doing nail art for five years now and I’ve never really seen guys wear nail polish,” says Young. That idea was the base of what was a summer project for her art foundation, but since then it’s become her life’s mission. Starting the @boysinpolish Instagram account earlier this year, she began shooting friends and family on her Fujifilm camera.
Young encourages the men she photographs to direct their own shoots so that they can “channel themselves.” She wants them to pick their location, outfit, nail color, and design. While some wear polish on a regular basis, many don’t, but want to after they see the results.
“There are some guys who go for bright colors and then guys who don’t even want a color. I’ve done messages on nails and even painted one of the guys own artwork on his nails,” she says, “There are so many possibilities that you can do with nail art.”
One of the people she photographed, Barry, came from a more “corporate” background than the others, says Young. She says he began to paint his nails to stop him from biting them, and thought color was “a bit more exciting.”
But Young’s favorite subject has to be her nephew, Mason, who she shot for the project. “My sister is very open to anything. I still stuck to it being self-directed when I took photos of him,” she says. “The next day my sister said that everyone in Mason’s nursery wanted their nails painted too.”
With this idea, Young hopes to one-day to host workshops for young boys. She’s even got another younger nephew who she can’t wait to take photos of. Along with this, she’s hoping to paint the nails of men around the world, and encourage them to both wear nail polish and become nail artists.
“The ratio [of male nail artists] compared to female is very small,” she says. “I probably only know a couple and none of them are straight. I want to open the door for straight men to explore that sort of same creativity.” As for men wearing polish, she says she’s been noticing a steady increase in male clients and predicts it to be a “normal thing” in around three years.
At WAH Nails, founded by Sharmadean Reid, Young often has celebrity clients. Gully Guy Leo has recently become her regular client, something she was excited about because she’s been meaning to shoot him for the project. Young speaks about all her clients with excitement, she’s fascinated by their stories and truly interested in their backgrounds. Speaking with her, it’s easy to see how everyone seems to find it easy to open up to her while she works on their nails. Meeting new people and getting to know them, she says, is her favorite part of her job.
Young will continue to shoot for Boys in Polish in October and beyond, as the overwhelmingly positive response has shown her that the project resonates with people. “I didn’t expect it to go where it is today, it was just a few pictures for fun,” she says. “But now I do really feel like this is the message I’m meant to carry out. I just want the nail salon to not be intimidating for guys and break the barriers a little bit.”
With the male beauty industry growing, artists like Young are creating a welcoming space for all genders by simply showing and encouraging boys to get involved. Through intimate portraits, she’s including men in what was previously a female-dominated conversation. And, ultimately, she’s just trying to help everyone enjoy something she’s loved since she was little.
“It’s not really about labeling what’s masculine or feminine, but just letting people be human at the end of the day,” she says. “I feel like it’s the role of the youth to change those perceptions.”