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Painting Nails as Art

A number of Oakland nail artists are breaking out of the traditional salon setup and are bringing their creative manicuring techniques to unlikely venues.

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A few years ago, it would have seemed out of place for someone to be sitting at a brightly lit table in a bar or nightclub, getting their nails done while others danced around them. Although that's still a surprising sight for many, it's becoming increasingly common for nail artists to pop up at DJ events, clothing boutiques, parties, and gallery openings. A number of local nail artists — including Taylor Watson of SF Party Nails, Laurel Maha of Pizza Perfect Nails, and Kiyomi Tanouye of #UndergroundNailBar — are becoming well-known for breaking out of traditional salon culture and bringing their innovative designs to unexpected audiences.

Nail art is the practice of painting tiny designs on nails, treating each one like a mini canvas. Nail artists often use super skinny brushes to create detailed paintings and then glue on embellishments. Watson became interested in nail art in 2010, when her only resources to learn techniques were Japanese blogs. Since then, nail art scenes have blossomed in Los Angeles and New York City, although the art form has yet to flourish to the same extent in the Bay Area.

When Watson first started doing nail art popups in late 2011, she didn't know of anyone else doing it in the Bay. Her first gig was a recurring popup at the bar Shotwell's in San Francisco's Mission District; then, over time, she branched out to more venues and started getting hired for events. She recently left her job at an education nonprofit to pursue nail art full-time.

Watson, Maha, and Tanouye began doing nail art as a hobby until they realized that they could use their skills to make extra money — and have fun doing it. Tanouye used to be one of the organizers of the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival, and her first popup was a fundraiser for the event in 2013. Maha started about a year ago, and did some of her first popups while biking across the country, stopping at art galleries and clothing boutiques along the way to help pay for the trip. Now, Tanouye has a consistent gig at the Legionnaire Saloon (2272 Telegraph Ave., Oakland), where she paints during ¡sPRUNg!, a party that takes place every second Thursday of the month. Maha pops up every third Wednesday of the month at Golden Bull (412 14th St., Oakland) from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. All three artists take about twenty to forty minutes to paint a full set of nails, depending on the detail of the designs, and they charge about $3 for a single nail and $25–$30 for a full set.

Like Watson, Maha is also transitioning to doing nail art full-time. She recently secured a station at Sparkle, a private nail studio in San Francisco, where she will be taking appointments and offering more involved techniques. But she will still be known as Pizza Perfect Nails and will continue doing popups. Even though she's taking her practice to a more professional level, Maha still sees nail art as an art form rather than a service. She has a fine arts degree, but she says she prefers nail art over painting and sculpture because it's fun, temporary, and never goes into storage or takes up space. "It's really rewarding because you're appreciating your art all the time," she said in a recent interview.

Watson, on the other hand, has never considered herself an artist, although she has always been a creative person. It wasn't until she started doing nail art that she gained the confidence to take on the title of artist — even though most people still don't consider nail painting to be art. Watson said she's not surprised that people don't yet take nail art seriously, because it's still often thought of as being "girly." But she said that the fact that the community is female dominated is one of her favorite things about it. She finds it empowering. "Having really fierce nails to me is such a sign of feminine power," she said. "Whether you identify as a super feminine person or not, it just sort of operates in this space of lady power."

It's easier to think of nail art as an art form when viewing it in the context that each artist has a signature style that he or she expresses differently. Watson's designs are often geometric and pattern-based, with subtle, expertly placed accents. Maha's designs, by contrast, are often more playful, with cute imagery, such as little slices of pizza. Recently, she's also been experimenting with watercolor-esque swirls and bold decorations, including studs and gems. Tanouye does a range of designs, often utilizing bright colors and glitter paint.

Watson said that one of the enjoyable aspects of doing popups is introducing nail art to people who wouldn't normally visit a salon, showing them that manicures can be thought of as wearable art. But Maha pointed out that popups are also a great way to show people who do go to salons that there are alternatives. In early May, The New York Times published a report titled "The Price of Nice Nails," which detailed the deplorable, exploitative labor practices used in New York City nail salons. Maha believes that there needs to be reform on a governmental level, but that consumers also play a critical role, particularly when they search out the cheapest nail salons. "The awareness is super important," she said. "That [article] will help people realize that if we don't support this [financially], then it can't exist."

Tanouye said that although there aren't that many women in the Bay Area doing nail art popups yet, there is a large community of talented nail artists who are working in salons. Working for yourself can be difficult in terms of building clientele, but it pays off because the artists keep all the money they make and they work whenever and wherever they want. Maha, Watson, and Tanouye all get most of their business via Instagram. Maha is @PizzaPerfectNails, Watson is @SFPartynails, and Tanouye uses the hashtag #undergroundnailbar. Although they are some of the first popup nail artists in the Bay Area, the community will likely grow. Eventually, that could prompt a shift in the way that people think about manicures and value nail art as a legitimate creative pursuit.

"It's kind of exciting to think that maybe I can pioneer this in the Bay Area," said Maha.

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