Inside The Catty Hidden World Of Instagram Nail Art

When a nail artist posts a manicure on Instagram, it's pretty much fair game for others to copy. Think about all of the times you've asked your nail artist to recreate a specific design you found on Instagram, or more recently, the Hailey Bieber-signature chrome manicure that's all over TikTok. I bring a reference almost every time I head to the salon and I'm sure you do too.
Courtesy of @julieknailsnyc
The caveat, as many established artists are beginning to vocalize, is that the visibility of Instagram makes it really easy for people to copy one another. Not only does this create a homogenous space (why does everyone's manicures suddenly look the same?) but in some cases, an artist is less than flattered when their work is duplicated by another artist, especially when there's no credit given.

The copyright dilemma

Most seasoned nail artists understand that it would be impossible to stake an ownership claim on something like the aforementioned French manicure. "As a [nail] artist, it's hard to claim that a lot of things are your own," explains celebrity nail artist Queenie Nguyen. "For example, I'm doing a red French manicure, if you do the exact same thing, I can't say anything — it's a French manicure."
Regardless of the intricacy in design, there's also the argument that you run the risk of being copied when you post your art online — especially when you have a following. "If you have 100,000 followers, how can you not expect people to replicate your work?" questions NYC-based nail artist Julie Kandalec. "If you don't want people replicating your art, don't post it."

Is it original or inspired by?

But, why do people copy? Oftentimes it's to practice. Instagram nail art has become what many artists would deem a "lucrative" space where the benefits of copying could be growth and visibility in the short term. "You can replicate someone's work and aesthetic and gain a following," Nguyen offers. Celebrity nail artist Tom Bachik agrees — if someone knows the basics of nail art, it might be pretty easy for them to copy someone else's design. "There are always people who just copy," Bachik says. "Some people are great at replicating art."
It's not just the actual nail art designs that are being copied either. "Another thing people copy is the aesthetic," Nguyen adds. "It's not just the art, but the hand poses. I started to notice that the past two or three years. Certain hand poses [are] being copied. Certain lighting and editing is being copied." It's why it can be hard to tell one nail artist's work from another.

"It's not just the art, but the hand poses. I started to notice that the past two or three years. Certain hand poses [are] being copied. Certain lighting and editing is being copied."

Queenie Nguyen
Celebrity and editorial nail artist Betina Goldstein has amassed over 383,000 followers on Instagram, in part because of her hand-painted art — she is often reposted for her intricate and minimalist nail-scapes — but also because of her own signature posing using her own hands. "I only have myself," Goldstein explains of how she developed a now often-copied "aesthetic" years before it was trendy. "I wanted to find a pose that would make my hands look okay and would be able to feature the nail art. I was just playing around, it was trial and error. If I go all the way back, [my] aesthetic has pretty much always been the same. My nail art has always been something I'd want to wear."

When imitation becomes problematic

The nail art industry can feel as small as the artists' canvases, so people notice when peers co-opt a design or claim it as their own. "It's a small community and a lot of us know each other," says Kandalec. "I think we generally support each other. Still, there's going to be some animosity. I can think of two artists in New York who claim they 'started' a certain trend. So, there's some of that."
While this is not necessarily a legal issue, copying does pose an ethical dilemma, and feels catty, especially when it's between artists with a similar clientele or visibility. "Let's say you're an artist in Alaska and you replicate my work, I don't care," Nguyen explains of where she sees the nuance. "But if you're another celebrity manicurist, all of a sudden you're in Nylon magazine claiming that it's your work, that's different." 
Nail artist Canishiea J. Sams says this happened to her. "I remember one time I was looking through a magazine and I saw two manicures that looked exactly like mine and I wasn't mentioned," Sams explains, chalking it up to the issue of multiple duplications of the same design — no one knew that she was the original source. "It was recreated by another salon; I know how that goes. Sometimes a client comes in and asks for something I originally created and they post it and that's what gets picked up."
Goldstein, with her large following, has experienced being slighted by larger conglomerates, like nail polish brands who don't want to pay for her original nail artwork, and will instead commission another artist to replicate one of her designs at a lesser cost. "A brand might pay an artist to recreate my art — it could be something I did in 2014 — and do a tutorial for it, because they don't want to pay me," Goldstein explains. "That hurts a little bit more. Like, why didn't you just ask me? That's the frustrating part."

"A brand might pay an artist to recreate my art — it could be something I did in 2014 — and do a tutorial for it, because they don't want to pay me. That hurts a little bit more. Like, why didn't you just ask me?

Betina Goldstein

The art of respectful crediting

It's not a great feeling to see your work replicated and not credited. "It's a sensitive issue and it's a sensitive time right now; little things hurt people's feelings," says Nguyen. "Really, I don't mind if people take my ideas and recreate them. I'm inspired by other artists. But the key here is giving credit. I see people who replicate my work without crediting it, but I think it's a respect thing. I'm big on crediting. I'm crediting my clients, it's their hands. I credit colors. I credit any artist who inspired me. It's very important to me."
Sams says that in her experience, giving credit for inspiration keeps everything kosher. "I remember being a young nail artist and feeling inspired by other people's stuff," she says. "But it's always been important to credit and to know the difference between recreating something and taking inspiration. Those are two different things. If you're tagging and commenting where you're getting your source from, that's all respect."
At the end of the day, it's just common courtesy. "It's really nice to have credit," offers Kandalec. "I think it's a really nice gesture, to say in your caption: 'Inspired by so and so.'" 

The larger issue with copying: Loss of individuality

When it comes down to it, the larger problem with artists copying other artists is the most worrisome: When we all copy each other, as Goldstein puts it, "Everything kind of mushes into one, and there's no individuality."
It's about making your own art and championing others to do the same. "My husband calls them horse blinders, you can't look around," Goldstein continues. "Sometimes I try not to get any nail feed online, like I try to trick my algorithm into showing me things that aren't nail art. You get influenced by what you're served. The 'likes' can be hard, because if you see that French tips gets likes, you might do a million French tips, but it's not original. It shouldn't be about the likes. It doesn't dictate how good your art is."

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