Nail Art Booms Following a Wider Appeal and a Growing Need for Self-Expression













I remember being a little girl and accompanying my mother to the shop to get her nails done. This was the mid-to-late '90s, and back then she wore them long with rounded tips and intricate designs. Her nail artist – a black woman – would allow me to scoot a chair up next to my mom and watch the process. Enthralled, I'd look on as she used an array of skinny brushes to paint colorful, wispy patterns or a long stick to pluck rhinestones from a little container before carefully putting them in place.

My mom would let me take a closer look at the finished work once we were back in the car. There, I'd muster up all the bargaining strength I could manage to try and convince her to let me gussy up my own little fingers. Being the responsible parent, she only allowed the occasional solid polish over my natural nails. I felt gypped, but my time would come at 17. That first set was a black-and-silver design over pink-and-white acrylic, and it's been on ever since. My nails have changed with the fashion and with my personal style, but I've always held my hands close to my heart.

Nail art has been a black thing for decades, running side-by-side with flamboyant hip-hop culture, but the last several years have seen an explosion in mainstream popularity. Many nail artists and educators credit the recession with increasing the gravitation towards nail art. One artist featured in the 2012 documentary Nailgasm compared it to the way women of the Great Depression coveted red lipstick as an easy and affordable way to dress themselves up. And, of course, we must give social media its due. Women are scrolling – screenshot buttons at the ready – through Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and the like in droves for the latest and hottest. No matter why, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Khloe Kardashian have all embraced nail art as an "it" accessory.

Azure Ballard (@officialnailbae), a Detroit artist, has been doing nails for six years and says she doesn't mind that nail art is being loved and adorned by other communities. "You get different strands of creativity. If we kept it in the black community, it'd be stuck to one kind of nail art," she says, adding that the sharing of ideas is reciprocal. Many Detroit salons are employing techniques and trends popularized by artists coming out of Germany, Sweden or Japan – a leader for over three decades in the nail-art craze.

It was the women – and men – of ancient Egypt that first decorated their fingertips. Women would dye their nails with henna to indicate social status and seductiveness. Upper class ladies donned deep, bright shades, while ladies of lesser means stuck to pastels and neutral hues. Nail polish originated in ancient China and was made from beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes and gum arabic. Colors typically ranged from pink to red depending on the added ingredients.

Today's trends include color acrylics, dip powders, chrome pigments, tribal art and ombré – but, as with fashion, we're kind of in an anything-goes period. Ballard says most popular with her clients right now is encapsulated art, which is when, instead of being placed on top of the nail, adornments are actually embedded inside the nail. Materials can include jewels, liquids, feathers, money, denim or even weed. I once saw a video online where someone encapsulated a tiny, live fish, disco-era platform shoes style.

Like any accessory, nail art is a way to express your style, personality and individuality. "You can't recreate it twice. It's impossible," Ballard says. You can have as much fun with it as you would a great bag or a funky pair of shoes – more even, because no matter how dope your shoes may be, no one is going to appreciate you tapping them on their desk.

Not long ago, my mom came to visit me at work and my nails were painted a bright yellow. She said, "Wow, I could never wear yellow nails. You're so bold and confident." She must've forgotten that I'm just following her lead.


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