Tanya Reshetnik
Nail Art as Sport and Contemporary Art

Henna, Glitter and Foil

“I love black nails, but I hate nail polish!” says Michele Lamy, the muse of fashion designer Rick Owens and co-founder of their shared brand, in an interview with SHOWStudio. Tapping the table with fingers adorned in black paint, tattoos and large rings, she explains that she repeats her staining ritual every morning. She also draws a vertical line on her forehead: it helps her collect her thoughts. This is what the first nail art in the world looked like. In the fifth millennium BC, women in India began painting their fingertips with henna, a tradition that has continued to this day.

Nail art has come a long way since then, and the real heyday for the most outrageous nail decorations was in the noughties. Two factors contributed to this. First, the internet evolved, providing convenient platforms, such as Pinterest or Tumblr, where manicurists and fans of fantasy manicure could share their work.

Second, the noughties witnessed a technological leap. Bio gel, 3D patterns, and glitter coatings came onto the nail market. While stylists had learned how to extend nails back in the eighties, they were able to create real paintings and three-dimensional mini installations only in the noughties. In 2007, Minx released a new invention, nail stickers (the foil ones that produced a mirror effect immediately became the most popular), and 2008 saw the emergence of Shellac brand nail polish, the first gel polish that allowed women to keep the same manicure for up to two weeks without touch-ups.

The celebrities of the noughties flaunted a wide variety of manicures, often featuring intricate nail art. Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé, Pink, Rita Ora, Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse and Madonna were the top nail models. They were a source of inspiration for young women around the world.

Looking at photos from the 2000s, you can distinguish two main trends: plain long nails (often square in shape) and short ones with patterns and several colour combinations. Rihanna, like other fashion icons of the noughties, such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, kicked off the millennium with moderate-length, oval-shaped nails in pastel shades, transitioning to extended, coloured square-shaped French tip nails and, finally, closer to 2010, to ombre nails, inscriptions and rhinestones. Katy Perry went in the opposite direction: from complex nail art (the singer and actress’s trademark look was a manicure that echoed the texture or patterns of the main components of her image) to a more modest, moderate-length, monochrome manicure. Between 2008 and 2018, she sported cryptocurrency nails, extraterrestrial manicures, cartoon characters, Hello Kitty, three-dimensional figures and more. Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, and Lana Del Rey all preferred sharp long nails (often false or extended) in bright colours, but they did not forget about nail art.

“The most popular nail shape in the noughties was square. And the design included sequins, acid shades, different colours and earrings and chains on the tips of nails, ” explains Masha Dorokhina, a Birdie salon manicurist. In short, everything that today is considered kitsch and that the ‘glamorous noughties’ so loved to worship.

Russian celebrities have had a cooler relationship with manicures: classic looks like elongated almond-shaped nails or bright coatings on short nails have been popular.

“It’s no secret that everything reaches our country with a slight delay. While international fashion celebrities and magazine cover girls sported a variety of manicures, long and short nails covered with bright and shiny polishes, the Russian market for nail services was almost underground. Someone somewhere was doing extensions and painting and gel polishing. I remember recently reading on a Telegram channel a nostalgic article on the topic by a staffer at a glossy mag. It was as if everyone went to some lady’s basement to get those longed-for nails just like in the magazines. It struck me as both funny and sad, ” recounts nail master Dasha Meshcheryakova.

Meshcheryakova herself is more of an adherent of the American style of the noughties, favouring complex patterns on nails, mirror polishes, extreme length, piercings and inscriptions.

As for men’s manicure, care procedures were not immensely popular in the noughties and early 2010s, but colour (mostly black) polish could be seen on the nails of many celebrities. Of course, a dark manicure is primarily a look that has been sported by rock stars and pop artists. Coloured nails were worn by Jared Leto, Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp and Bono at various times. And even Prince Harry was seen wearing pink nail polish a couple of times (albeit before marrying Meghan Markle). Another trend of men’s manicure, with black and other dark shades of polish was given rise by the emo movement, which flourished in the mid-noughties. Bill and Tom Kaulitz of Tokio Hotel, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boys, and Oliver Sykes of Bring Me the Horizon all showed off dark manicures of varying degrees of shabbiness on short lengths as part of their stage images and everyday looks. Well-groomed unpolished men’s manicures gained popularity in the late 2010s: celebrities started talking about manicure as a grooming procedure in interviews, and it was not so hard to find men stopping by Russian nail salons for ‘classic no-polish’ manicures. Nail art and coloured nails are now sported by men in different fields, from Marc Jacobs, Ezra Miller and Brad Pitt to the fans (and performers) of the groups Kuznetsky Squad and Poehkhkhali. Last year, the Russian edition of GQ even devoted a column to the vital question of whether you should paint your nails or not.

Death of the Glossies and the Dawn of Instagram

The easiest way to track changing trends in nail art is celebrity photos. Today, the trends are set primarily by stars on the same scale as the Kardashian — Jenner clan. Whereas before you had to look for new designs in photos in magazines, today you can follow the metamorphoses in the manicures of Kylie Jenner and Dua Lipa on Instagram in real time, as the 195 million followers of the Kardashian family’s youngest member and the British singer’s 52 million fans do. Today, the audience of the first-tier stars on Instagram exceeds the number of readers of Condé Nast’s magazines.

“Kendall Jenner has matte nude nails — and tomorrow people will still want them for another six months, ” jokes nail artist Evgeniya Golubeva. Kylie and Kim even have their own brands of cosmetics, however, bypassing the nail polishes and accessories niche. The internet is most concerned about whether their nails are real and whether they are easy to handle when doing everyday tasks. There are no questions about the origin of Cardi B’s nails (she is another queen of nail art) but even her extreme length and design are regularly copied by young women around the world.

Instagram influencers also serve as benchmarks. Most often, they are women, aged 18 to 45, whose lives on Instagram are followed by hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Of course, as they discuss their purchases, personal care, cosmetics, and style, they cannot avoid manicure and nail art. The hashtag #Nailsofinstagram is the gateway to over 27 million photos on Instagram. Some users follow the minimalism Ivania Caprio (@love_aesthetic), who posts photos about transparent ‘glass’ nails, spotty manicures and nails with the Prada logo emblazoned over a plain polish. To make it easier for fans to follow nail updates and show stylists what to copy, the blogger has attached highlights to all her nail art designs. Complex designs and polychromatic colouring can be found on the page of Instagram influencer and model Ming Lee Simmons, while you can see artistic experiments with colour on the pages of writer and painter Fong Min Lao or Tina Maria.

Others follow the superstar manicurists. One of them is Mei Kawajiri (Nailsbymei). Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid, Imaan Hammam and Emma Watson go to her for manicures. The nail artist balances on the edge between kitsch and art, while not disdaining ‘commercial’ manicures for magazines and look books. (Bella Hadid’s scarlet stilettos for an Alexander Wang shoot and the slightly old-fashioned French tip manicure for Lily Rose Depp’s Chanel shoot were Mei’s handiwork.) Still, her main focus has been uncompromising nail art: Farm Animal figurines on each nail, precious stones and rhinestones over glitter, and extremely long nails with the ‘moon’ symbol of the Marine Serre brand, stilettos inscribed with the code from The Matrix, and black balls on average-length nails.

Los Angeles manicurist Britney Tokyo creates nail art with no care for convenience. She can fit comic book stories on nails, as well as Haribo bears and imitation pierced nipples (Tokyo layers them with dark polish). But deconstructed nails are her main trick: twisted like caribou antlers, with a heart-shaped perforation in the centre of the free edge or a fluffy tip. Jessica Washik has been edging closer to artistic experimentation, but she seems to be more captivated by colour than form. On her nails, you will encounter stained-glass designs and intricate geometric patterns. Park Eunkyung employs a realist technique, adorning nails with crystals that imitate frost, and three-dimensional reflective patterns that extend to the knuckles.

For nail artists, Instagram has become a showcase for their professionalism: thanks to high-quality photography, the smallest details on nails are visible. Their complex works, resembling objets d’art rather than manicures, are not a means of scoring new clients (the superstar nail artists are usually booked months in advance as it is), but an opportunity to show off their portfolio to major brands and fashion houses, media, and stylists. The former are always on the lookout for manicurists to do look books and fashion shows, while the magazines need new names for articles and professionals for photo shoots.

Of course, it is not only the quality of photo shoots that has played into the hands of nail artists. Much more important are the variety and high quality of nail care products, which in recent years have made it possible to work with almost any master.

“The variety of products is amazing right now. It was not like this before. In my first college course, it was a given that the instructor would tell us that if we learned to work with bad products, we would definitely succeed with good ones. With the advent of gel polish and techniques for working with it, artificial coatings have reached a new level, ” says Meshcheryakova.

She notes that extensions are still in fashion: gel and acrylic have not yielded their popularity for years. But new, more modern products are coming to the fore.

“In nail modelling, for example, the latest novelty is polygel (or acrygel: it has many names, depending on the manufacturer’s imagination). It is a product that combines the best qualities of gel and acrylic. It is very convenient way of modelling and repairing nails, ” she says.

Instagram has become the main platform for the nail business in Russia, and the memes ‘Sign up for nails’ and ‘Open slots’ seem to have been recognized over the past couple of years even by people who don’t use the app. The fact is that many nail salons (especially when they are starting up) prefer to use Instagram as a showcase for the work of their manicurists, as an information platform, and often as way for clients to make appointments online. The same principle applies to private manicurists who work from home. They post all their contact details and design samples in their social media profiles, thus eliminating the need to create a separate website and spend money on developing and maintaining it.

Nail Sports

Carved roses, as on Soviet-era cakes, zodiac signs, fly agarics, and a three-dimensional figure of a girl with blonde hair are piled on the eight-centimeter green stiletto nails of a model who tries to brush back a lock of hair on her forehead by hooking it with her finger. The young woman at the next table sports polymer dolls in puffy wigs, pearls the size of quail eggs, and horses with flowing manes attached to her endlessly long nails. The young women carefully model their multi-layered, tree-branch-like nails on the catwalk, their hands resting carefully at waist level. This is how the Nailympics, the Olympic games in the world of nail art, take place. The first competition was held in 2001 in London. Since then, masters from all over the world have come every year to Britain to spend many hours recreating Baroque paintings and realistic installations on the hands of models. Polymers, airbrushing, natural products, semi-precious stones, rotating constructions and artificial lighting (batteries are discreetly attached to the model’s wrist) all come into play.

“First I made it through the qualifying rounds and went to the championships in Moscow and Petersburg. By taking prizes at those competitions, you can make it onto the Russian national team. These masters then go to the Nailympics in London. I participated in several disciplines: acrylic modelling, 3D design and nail painting. There are different criteria for evaluating each of them, but there is a strictly fixed amount of time for doing all the pieces — for example, only an hour is allowed for painting. That was the category that I won. You had to represent your country. I drew the Russian folk tale characters Baba Yaga and the Pike on the nails I presented. However, the judges see the model’s hands only through a small slot, and they have to guess what ‘country’ they are looking at. It wasn’t until the last minute that I had any expectation of winning: we don’t see the reactions of the judges and their scores. But when I looked at the works of the other competitors, I got the sense that I had a chance, ” recalls Svetlana Yudkina.

In 2010, Yudkina won first place in nail painting at the Nailympics. She notes that the Russian competitors, who often win these competitions, are distinguished by their outstanding imagination and accuracy. At the same time, Yudkina admits that the Japanese, Korean and Italian masters are also very professional.

A no less significant event is the World Cup of Nail Art, which takes place in Munich. The artists compete in two disciplines — flat and 3D. The first involves polishing and extending nails and making patterns on them with a brush or other tool. The second involves creating three-dimensional installations on nails. The subjects are determined in advance each year, and they tie in with the competition’s overall theme. (Past themes have included ‘Fashion Meets Tradition’, ‘Optical Illusions’, and ‘Royal Traditions’). In addition to sporting nails that riff on the championship’s theme, the models must also have outfits and looks to match their nails, something that also goes into the judges’ scores. Competitors have three and a half hours to create an image that the jury evaluates according to several criteria: creativity and design; the complexity of the work and the variety of products used; the quality of the polish and the overall impression. The six winners are awarded cash prizes and the opportunity to publish their work in European nail art magazines.

It is most often manicurists from Ukraine, Italy, and Russia who compete and win at the World Cup of Nail Art. Dorokhina explains why competitors from the former Soviet Union often win these contests.

“Russia has an extraordinarily strong school of nail service and, at the same time, very demanding clients who know what they want, and if they don’t get it, they go looking for another manicurist. This keeps the quality of the service at a rather high level. In Europe and the United States, there is less competition among masters, and customers get what they are willing to provide, meaning that the client’s opinion counts for little, ” she says.

True Russian perseverance in matters of manicure and nail art is superimposed on the constant need to improve and stand out from one’s numerous colleagues. On the other hand, the low cost of manicures in Russia (compared to similar procedures in the United States and Europe) allows women to go to master manicurists more often, and they, in turn, get more practice. The high percentage of competitors from Russia and neighbouring countries also plays a role: unlike the United States and Europe, in Russia you can get a manicurist’s diploma by attending short-term courses, without immersing yourself in the medical aspects of the job.

“In Russia, it is quite easy to get a master manicurist’s diploma. To do this you often don’t even have to get high marks in the courses. In addition, there are a large number of online courses where your results cannot be checked at all. They also give out diplomas, ” explains Meshcheryakova.

Russia also has its own competitions, which are held at the nail industry’s Nail Expo, at the Crocus Expo complex in Moscow. However, the nail modelling and design championship is adjacent to a similar competition for eyelash extension and is only part of the event. Nail Expo’s main focus is still new products and innovations in the industry. The exhibition is attended by dozens of companies that manufacture and distribute manicure and pedicure products and equipment, and cosmetics for hand and foot care, as well as by nail training centres and trade publications.

The most explosive nail art is to be found at the Japanese version of the Nail Expo festival in Tokyo. Images of sushi and three-dimensional figures of bento boxes on ten-centimetre-long stilettos, traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy motifs, kimono-like patterns, and precious stones with rhinestones don’t look kitschy, although they certainly don’t resemble the usual manicure at all. Such pieces bring nail art closer to art per se than to routine manicures involving acrylics, lacquers and the nail plate.

Winning isn’t always a springboard to a new life for competing nail artists, however. Despite the fact that every year such events are attended by tens of thousands of people from the nail art industry, and winners get magazine covers and cash prizes, the manicures produced at these events are not intended for everyday life, and nail salons are in no hurry to hire competitors. Contests are merely a way for nail artists from all over the world to demonstrate their skills and enjoy the competitive spirit. And while Instagram nail art is dominated by Korean, Japanese and American masters, a high percentage of competition winners are young women from Russia and the other post-Soviet countries.

At the same time, it would seem that contests and competitions are taken seriously only by those who compete in them. Nail art masters who work with real clients and celebrities look askance at such events.

“Competitions are a separate story that have little in common with manicure in its classical sense. They have certain performance standards that are checked almost with a magnifying glass and ruler. But what does winning mean? It’s hard to say! I met one master who had a shelf full of trophies from various competitions and a high opinion of herself. I thought that her work on clients would be the height of perfection. When I was able to see her work on a real person, I was surprised: the end result was far from perfect, ” explains Meshcheryakova.

At the same time, Meshcheryakova sees no sense whatsoever in Russian competitions. Anyone can organize their own competition, and every year dozens of contests with stupid names and less than honest results are held.

“My teacher, a very experienced and authoritative specialist, has sworn off judging competitions in Russia because the prizes are often awarded unfairly, and the names of the winners are known in advance, ” she says.

Golubeva agrees with her.

“In Russia, such championships are run by mafia-like organizations whose events have nothing to do with fashion. The upshot is that the finalists and winners rake in the money, amass piles of awards and certificates, and conduct endless courses and master classes as ‘winners’ and ‘finalists.’ These contests have unrealistic categories that are completely useless in real life, ” Golubeva says.

Yudkina, who won at the 2010 Nailympics, partly confirms Golubeva’s assessment. At the championship, Yudkina represented the Tula beauty studio Victory, a studio that she now heads.

“There is no bang for your buck from competitions. They are merely a means of pumping up your skills. Of course, I could have moved to Moscow to work there after the competition, but I wasn’t really interested in that. Basically, competitions are a way to show off your skills, ” she says.

The ‘Russian’ Manicure Can Be Dangerous

Thanks to such championships, the concept of the ‘Russian’ manicure was born in the west. Unlike the European manicure, which is done without cutting tools, the Russian manicure involves a machine cutter with a set of heads of different sizes for levelling and polishing nails, and the cuticle is removed with scissors or another instrument. This technique requires more skill and diligence, and also involves serious amounts of sterilization and disinfection. The greatest demand for this type of manicure is in Russia, and masters from Russia and the post-Soviet countries are more willing to use this method.

“This is probably due to the Russian character: we are inventive and very diligent, sometimes unnecessarily so, ” jokes Golubeva.

The downside of the ‘perfect’ Russian manicure is the risk of injuring the nail plate. If the manicurist works carelessly, there is a high risk of damaging the nails and the adjacent skin. What looks beautiful in an Instagram picture amounts to a thinning of the nail plate and wounds to the skin in real life. However, the process takes some time, so the first reviews of those who try it are most often enthusiastic. Western trade publications have warned their readers about it.

“Foreign colleagues often use the phrase ‘Russian manicure’ in a negative sense. The thing is that the market for manicurists in Russia is glutted. Every third manicurist with a year or more of experience thinks that their experience is sufficient for teaching. There is no oversight and, consequently, every salon has a dozen ‘masters’ whose work is not regulated in any way. Manicure studios open and close at the speed of light, and their owners are the last people to think about the quality of the services they offer. The manicure techniques that are so popular in our country are very traumatic, and a perfect ‘subcuticular’ manicure and polish often hides big problems with the health and condition of the nails. There are a lot of awesome specialists in Europe and America, but high quality over there costs a lot of money and involves expensive equipment, ” explains Dasha Maleyeva.

Consequently, many people look for alternatives, arriving at the ‘Russian’ manicure.

Nails as Art Objects and Installation Spaces

On 17 June 2017, the National Gallery of Ireland celebrated its reopening after a six-year-long renovation with an exhibition of works by Vermeer. On opening day, museum visitors could not only gaze at Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid, but also have the subject of one of the Dutch master’s paintings transferred to their nails. The gallery had asked the renowned Dublin nail salon Tropical Popular to provide the service. Their nail artists had examined in advance the Vermeer paintings on display and made sketches, later reproducing on visitors’ nails. A year later, the one-off nail event resulted in a year-long collaboration: Tropical Popular’s artists worked in the museum every Thursday, reproducing the works of other artists. The museum’s management expressed the hope that the nail initiative would help attract a younger audience.

But nail art is not only about contests, ‘Russian’ manicures involving cat eye nails, experiments with gel polish, or promotions for upcoming exhibitions. Nails in contemporary art (and nail art as their continuation) have become an independent topic for research.

In 2017, Chinese curator Ye Funa launched Curated Nails, a project dedicated to the ‘tiny space of human nails’. Ye invited curators to manifest their themes and concepts in this unconventional space, part of the human body, thus breaking down the barriers between ‘daily display’ and ‘art exhibition’. Rather, the project was a response to the popularity of nail art and nail studios in China. It was supported by the most popular online messenger app in the country, WeChat, which a few years earlier launched its own online nail project Cyber Nail, enabling users to generate virtual manicures on their own nails, copying images from wherever they like.

Canadian artist Jeremy Bailey explores the phenomenon of the human body (primarily his own body) through the prism of modern technology and augmented reality. Bailey makes videos that use 3D graphics to enhance his image via masks and virtual objects. To experiment with nails, the artist created the Nail Art Museum project, in which nails were adorned with the Venus de Milo, Jeff Koons’s ‘balloon dogs’, and Donald Judd’s ‘stacks’. In total, Bailey used the work of around a dozen artists, ranging from Ai Weiwei to Albrecht Dürer, in his project.

Such projects, combining artworks and the human body, even transferred to virtual reality or video, are most reminiscent of classic performance art. However, with the evolution of technology and broadcasting via the internet, they enable artists to reach a larger audience, as well as involve them in what is happening on the screen. For example, any smartphone owner who has installed the app can try on any work of art in the world using Cyber Nail.

Eco-Activists Against Nail Art

Despite rapid technological development, the regular appearance of new products on the market, and large-scale annual competitions, the future of nail art is unclear. Today, the main enemies of acrylic nails and intricate design are eco-activists and the environmental movement. More and more people around the world are concerned about conscious consumption and trying not to waste natural resources. Nail art almost always involves several grams of plastic on the nails, which regularly have to be removed and touched up: in the case of manicures for contests and competitions, immediately after the competition; for everyday wear, once every few weeks.

Ordinary polishes that can be used at home also raise questions among eco-activists. Some of these polishes are tested on animals, while others contain ingredients that are unsafe for humans and the environment. And even eco-products that cause minimal damage have to be removed with nail polish remover, entailing the consumption of disposable cotton pads. In addition, not all nail polish bottles can be recycled.

In parallel with the explosive nail art on Instagram, the ‘no-manicure manicure’ trend — naturally shaped short nails with no polish—has been gaining popularity. Type in the hashtags #naturalnails and #nonailpolish and you will find millions of photos of nails, under which women enumerate their reasons for giving up nail polish. There are not so many Russian-language posts under these hashtags, however.

Meshcheryakova notes that this trend cannot yet be called widespread, at least in Russia. The point, rather, is that everyone has the right to make their own choice.

“I wouldn’t say that the trend is towards natural nails. Nowadays, it’s okay not to wear polish, and it’s just as okay to sport huge nails adorned with chains and rhinestones. Everyone chooses what fits them best. A simple illustration: there is Vogue, and there is Dazed. In the first case, you will often find short nails, classic colours, or a complete lack of polish. In the second, you will find nails decorated with computer graphics, and so-called ugly nails, and men with claws. Some find the first world more appealing, while others are more drawn to the second. Add to this the cyclical nature of fashion: so you see that the wide French tip manicure on long extended nails, which was popular in the noughties, has again become fashionable. Isn’t it great to have a variety of choices and be able play with your own look? There are also many young women who have realized that nowadays you can stop trying so hard to ‘fit in’ by constantly doing makeup, manicure, and styling. Hence, in particular, the fashion for naturalness, ” she says.

Most likely, nail art will become more closely intertwined with augmented reality and 3D modelling. Similar to Instagram masks, social media users will soon be able to give designs from popular bloggers a test drive simply by pointing the camera at their hands. At the same time, nail artists will be more willing to experiment and expand the canons of beauty, creating works at the intersection of practical manicure and exhibition-quality nail art. Such masters today include Juan Alvear, whose frightening and canon-defying work is easier to present in a gallery under glass than on the nails of models.

Contest and exhibition nail art will no doubt be improved and become more complex, and the emergence of new products and techniques for manicurists (and their clients) will only facilitate this evolution. Pressured by the public outcry, manufacturers will probably soon start thinking about more environmentally friendly products, and nail polish brands will begin producing eco-friendly series in addition to their main product line, helping them reach a wider audience. However, non-toxic, minimally environmentally harmful, and even vegan polishes can already be found in many salons today. Smith & Cult, Zoya, Butter London, Kure Bazaar, and others specialize in such polishes. In addition to the classic short-wear polishes, such brands are trying to provide alternatives to gel polish, which many appreciate primarily for its long life on nails.

“Some customers can wear the new generation of polish for one to two weeks, sometimes longer. At the same time, you can remove these polishes yourself in a couple of minutes without going to a salon, ” says Dorokhina.

We only have to wait until this service can be ordered at home with one touch on our smartphones, like grocery delivery or restaurant takeout.

Translated from Russian by Thomas H. Campbell

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