Why Manicurists Are Modern-Day Michelangelos

Yesterday’s Pink Polish Is Giving Way to a New Art Form—and a New Way to Talk With Our Hands

On a memorable Sunday afternoon when I was 6, my aunt gave me my first manicure. She spread out dozens of vials of shiny polish, and I chose scarlet: cherry bright, shiny, and alluring. Then my mother saw my nails. “Couldn’t you have chosen light pink or clear?” she scolded. She thought I was too young for nail polish—and especially for that color. Back then, pink or frosty shades of melon and pearl were seen as pretty (not to mention respectable) nail colors. Clearly, red nails were inappropriate.

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As a high school student in the 1970s, I reveled in being the first girl to wear blue nail polish. Amidst the pervasive beige and orange hues of the era, my “unnatural” nails provoked comments from classmates and strangers, not least because they matched the hip-hugging bell-bottoms I made to complete the ensemble. By then, my mother had learned not to criticize my style: As long as I wore a bra, things were OK.

These days, I get regular manicures and pedicures but rarely have color applied to my fingernails. The solvents and pigments I use in my art studio would mar the smooth surfaces and clean lines of the meticulously applied hues. Then there’s the time I spend in the classroom. Plain nails go along with the image of the serious, scholarly professor.

Though I have set aside the reds and blues of my youth, I’m interested—as an artist and an anthropologist—in the trend of making one’s nails into exhibition spaces. At the Riverside salon that I frequent, I like to listen to discussions between manicurists and their clients: Will the green checkerboard pattern clash or complement the pink dress? Is deep brown or amber a good choice for a job interview? Holidays make choices easier: Even women my mother’s age sport skulls with rhinestone eyes at Halloween and ask for reindeer to match their holiday sweaters at Christmas. My friend described her elaborate manicures to me as “fun,” like a game. Nail art enables anyone to participate in the craze for body art and modification in a more playful spirit than permanent tattoos or plastic surgery.

But even as it grows more and more complex, one of the most peculiar aspects of this art form is that its base (a fingernail) is a growing part of a living organism—one that will eventually be cut off. Aside from the impermanence of nails, their surface offers an excellent base that is naturally rigid and slightly curved. Unlike canvas, paper, or wood panels, the unadorned nail is transparent with clear markings. Nail artists use the nail’s moon shape as a design element, or borrow from the traditional “French” manicure with its whitened tips.

Because so many nail styles and designs involve the ability to reproduce motifs with great consistency, nail artists must be nimble-fingered and detail-oriented. They use tiny brushes and air brushes that blow paint for shading. Ball-point pens are used to make polka dots, checkerboards, or lines. When I watch a nail artist inscribe a drawing on a pinky, it makes me think of masters of the art of miniature, from the great painters of Persia to Bruegel.

But unlike watercolor, tempera, or some acrylic painting techniques, nail artists never apply color to an unprimed surface. They paint a base coat, a background of “primer” that makes hard, strong, rigid nails the foundation of the art. This is what allows these artworks to be exhibited: to shine at the dinner table they must be strong enough to get through shopping, food preparation and, later, dishwashing.

The necessary utility of the “gallery” also results in conservatism with regard to form. Nails may be molded in various ways and objects attached to extend them or alter their shape. But while unusually long, pointed, or otherwise complexly shaped nails are more common today then in the past, they are still often seen as outrageous. Perhaps this is a way for the person wearing those nails to flaunt that she doesn’t do menial tasks. Upper-class ladies often rely on others to clean their homes, and keep their own nails “tastefully” demure.

Nails are unique in body art for their rigidity, which enables painters to develop hard-edged, fixed images that are difficult to achieve on softer materials like skin. Lines stay in place; decals stay put. It also makes them an ideal base for building up interesting textures: beads and jewels have become popular additions in recent years. This is a current trend among young fashionistas but must also be related to the burgeoning popularity of bead crafts in recent years.

Another new trend in nail design is to use distinct patterns or colors on certain fingers or toes to turn them into punctuation marks. It’s common to paint the nail of the ring finger with a design that complements or clashes with the colors and images on the other fingers. This style has become so ubiquitous that it’s hardly a personal statement any longer.

One key feature of the nail painter’s canvas: hands are always moving and cannot shape a still image. So tiny nail pictures evolve, transported in multiple directions like a moving mosaic. As a hand reaches for an object, it brings swirls of color into contact. The percussive sound of nails on typewriters is one I recall from disco days. Now, computer keyboards provide a softer background sound for an evolving exhibition: Today my office at UC Riverside featured hands with Mick Jagger’s lips, the letters of a boyfriend’s name, and 10 different musical notes, all in constant motion.

But as keyboards give way to touch screens and perhaps eventually even voice-activated devices, and as hand-driven machines are replaced by remotely operated systems, ever more creative nail sculptures may become more practical. Couples could have their nails fashioned to entangle and intertwine in elaborate courtship rituals. Nails could expand their musical range: not only as the percussion instruments they already are, but also as whistles, flutes, or new kinds of personal string instruments. And of course, nails may become convenient places to store ever-smaller bits of information. The rhinestones we see on nails today may end up housing tiny computer chips that emit sounds, images, scents, or subliminal messages.

In our ephemeral, minimalist age, the nail might be the perfect canvas for telling the world who we are and what we want to be. Its impermanence makes it easy to take on and shed personas from day to day or week to week. And as we store more and more information in ever-tinier vessels, the ideal modicum of self-expression shouldn’t be any bigger than a fingertip.

Susan Ossman has written on media, globalization and beauty, notably in Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo. Her new book, Moving Matters Paths of Serial Migration, is about immigrating more than once. She is professor of anthropology and director of global studies at UC Riverside.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.
Primary Editor: Becca MacLaren. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of Janet Lackey.
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