It Happened To Me BEAUTY EDITION: I Left Office Life And Became A Nail Artist

Just as people are starting to complain about nail art fatigue, my career is taking off.
Publish date:
May 28, 2013
manicures, nail art, Brooklyn, It Happened To Me, fashion week, beauty school, manicurists

"Few nail art endeavors impress us any more ­­ you could say we're suffering from manicure fatigue." ­- Recent Huffington Post article.

I get it. You're sick of nail art.

In major metropolitan areas (hi, NYC!) people love to say that they're over something, when the truth is that the rest of the country is just catching on.

Why do I care? Because I’m a professional nail artist and manicurist.

A year-and-a-half ago, I left what was once my dream position at a quirky, creative website. After four years of staring at a computer and helping other artists to quit their day jobs and make art full-time, my spirit was beginning to coagulate into a tiny, bitter pit of resentment. When I found myself complaining, “Pulled pork AGAIN?” at one of the twice-­weekly artisanal/local/organic catered employee luncheons, I knew I was done.

As a weirdo teenager in West Virginia in the late 90s, I was a semifinalist in the Chanel/Seventeen magazine Colour of the Year contest. I designed a color called Five, a pearly white with flecks of gold that smelled like Chanel No. 5 when it dried. (In retrospect, I think the scratch­n­sniff vibe was a little gauche for the brand.) I didn’t win but I got a bunch of Chanel products and a feature in my local paper, in which I likened myself to Sylvia Plath. O, adolescence most precocious!

A decade later, I picked up the polish again as a result of doing The Artist’s Way. It looks like total hippie whatnot, but trust me: I owe my livelihood and creative fulfillment to it.

In this twelve week program of artistic recovery, author Julia Cameron suggests weekly “artist dates” which involve hanging out and playing with your artist self. My last­-minute artist dates usually consisted of watching Futurama on Netflix and painting my nails.

Each time I painted my nails, my designs got more and more adventurous and complicated. I started a blog.

Friends started asking for manicures. Stylist friends asked me to join them on photoshoots. I wanted to say yes, but I was insecure about my abilities, and felt uncomfortable charging money for something I wasn’t actually licensed or trained in. (If you look at the earlier images on my blog you’ll see a hot mess of polish all over the cuticles.)

Getting laid off gave me the perfect excuse and free time to go to beauty school for a nail specialty program. After touring a couple of totally sketch nail schools in Manhattan, I approached Ria Lopez of RiaNailz and asked her where she’d gone to beauty school.

I enrolled at Christine Valmy International School as soon as I was able. Beauty school gave me confidence and technique, and I’m proud to call myself a licensed professional. And having a trade is WAY more useful than my BFA in puppetry (yes, really).

A week after graduating from the nail program, I assisted celebrity manicurist Gina Edwards on my first show at New York Fashion Week, Betsey Mother Effin’ Johnson. Since leaving the desk job, I’ve worked a dozen Fashion Week shows and designed the nail look for one, worked events with Adidas Originals, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, and Katie Cazorla from the reality television show Nail Files.

Most days I work, I make more hourly than I did working an office job. I work a couple of days a week at Freckle, a salon in Brooklyn, and I see private clients in their homes and mine. I work on editorial photo shoots for magazines and look books.

I’m still navigating the worlds of salon vs. editorial vs. events, but what I like about the field is that there is a lot of room for diversity. The mission statement I came up with for a nail school assignment was: “To use my creativity and personality to help others feel confident and beautiful. To express myself and gain prosperity doing work I enjoy.”

I recently did the nails of a weirdo teenager, born the year I graduated high school. Her mom told me afterwards that our appointment was the first time she’d laughed in a week. That’s why I do this. Have I mentioned I love my job?

I’ve linked up with the growing community of nail artists in NYC, and we do events regularly. These women inspire me constantly; every time I see work from them my mind is blown, and I’m inspired to work harder and push myself.

The nail art scene is the intersection of the hood, Harajuku, Tumblr, the dorm room, the runway, New Jersey, and the art world. It functions a bit like the tattoo or graffiti scenes; many people have a handle they go by and are known for a particular style or specialty. You know what AstroWifey or Naomi Yasuda or El Salonisto is going to deliver when you see their name in the credits. (An excellent resource for more on the history and scene is the Nailgasm documentary by Ayla “Brass” Montgomery.)

A nail artist can be formally trained or self-­taught. Sometimes I catch feelings like, “This chick is a blogger, she doesn’t know about the technical stuff, blah blah,” and then I realize that she’s dope, and I’m just starting out myself! And like every medium or universe, there’s room enough for everyone to shine.

Has nail art reached critical mass? Maybe so. But like tattoos were once thought of as a fad, nail art is here to stay. And like tattoos, nail art is not for everyone. (Just cool badasses, obviously.)

With the world economy ever precarious, the “lipstick effect” is alive and well. The theory holds that during times of recession or downturn, consumers will pass on larger luxury purchases such as purses and vacations and buy smaller but still designer items, such as lipstick and, yep, nail polish! So maybe you can’t swing the Lady Dior handbag, but you can probably cop the Dior Vernis and feel like “Red Royalty.”

I think of the designs on my fingers like tiny sand mandalas, representing the transitory nature of material life, their eventual fate being ritual destruction. (When I anxiously peel the polish off my nails. IT’S OK, I’M A PROFESSIONAL. Seriously, do not do this.)

Maybe the trend will go back to basic, but I’m not worried. I believe the art form as a movement will last much longer than any paint job.