3 Of Fashion’s Most Prominent Nail Artists On How They Got Their Start

Designed by Richard Chance.
Nail art is more than a trend — it's a bona-fide movement. Whether the polish is inspired by a music festival, fueled by feminism, or simply a love letter to summer, it forms a wearable fashion statement that lasts for weeks. Although models and actors have been known to garner attention for rocking intricate designs, the real celebrities in the nail-art world are, fittingly, the artists themselves.
Through viral Instagram posts and head-turning runway looks, these artists prove that nails are a mini canvas with limitless possibilities. Their world is one explored in the critically acclaimed TNT drama Claws, which you can binge now. Starring the ever-fierce Niecy Nash and executive produced by Rashida Jones, the show dives headfirst into the nail world, with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes drama (in this case, undercover drug trafficking).
In real life, the stories may be less theatrical, but the designs are no less mesmerizing. To find out what it's like to dominate the nail industry, Refinery29 talked with three powerhouses in the nail-art world. Like the women in Claws, these three artists are both incredibly empowering and unapologetically themselves.
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Designed by Richard Chance.
Sharmadean Reid
After starting a hip-hop fanzine for girls called WAH while still in college, U.K.-native Sharmadean Reid had an itch to take the community she'd built on those pages into the real world. She'd long been struggling to find a place for her and her friends to get the intricate nail art they loved, in a space where they could feel empowered. So in 2009, she built it.

Since then, WAH Nails, located in London’s East End, has gone on to revolutionize the world of nail art, offering women not only a place to get intricate, relevant designs but also to unload about the challenges we face as women. Her upcoming venture, an app called Beautystack, will allow users to pick their nail art from pictures online.

How did your passion for nail art begin?
"It actually didn't start with a passion for nail art. I really wanted to create a physical community center for women to hang out. There aren't a lot of places you go to and have social time that doesn’t involve eating or drinking. Beauty is one of the few places where you can do that. And of all the beauty things that exist, you can really only talk while you get your nails done. You can’t talk while getting a facial. So it was really about talking — and nail art was the cherry on the cake."

WAH Nails has grown into a major brand. What are the benefits and challenges of running your own business?
"When you're a founder, one minute everything is hunky dory and the next there's the biggest disaster on the planet. But really it's super fun. It's almost like being a magician: I think of something, and the team builds it, and the developers make it. I think when you're running a business, you're creating magic. It makes you extremely privileged to do something that affects other people. Every time we update the app, I’m like, OMG this is nuts, coding is mysticism, coding is abracadabra."
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You currently write an advice column for women in The Guardian called "Bossing It." Have you noticed any themes in the questions?
"I get a lot questions about confidence as it relates to idea execution, like, 'I want to do this thing, but I'm not sure how.' I think it's an eternal problem we have because women have been told in so many ways that it’s not for us — not that we’re not capable, but a bit like who do you think you are? Everyone has a different voice in their head. It might have come from parents, the media, a partner; no matter where, it's a little voice saying you can't do that. I think it's useful to understand where that voice is coming from — and do something about it."

You've also started a new app called Beautystack — pegged as "social network meets marketplace" — that allows women to pick out the nail art they want and order it ahead of time. What inspired that?
"I just think no one cares about reinventing beauty, because it's seen as women's work. In fact, it's really important in society to have groomers and therapists, which is what we are. Before we started, no one took pictures of their nails and there were hardly any nail blogs. I just found that people were coming in the salon and not asking for a manicure — they were bringing a picture and saying, 'I want this.' So in this app, you can put in the full info, [browse,] and pick."

Overall, do you like being your own boss?
"I always knew I'd be running my own life, that I was going to be bringing my baby on set and working on my own. It's not that I feel empowered; it's what I always knew I'd be doing because it never suited me to be working on someone else's schedule. Life is really complex, and as long as you do the work, I don’t care where you are. I care a lot about how we are able, as the next generation of entrepreneurs, to rewrite the rules."
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Designed by Richard Chance.
Mei Kawajiri
Mei Kawajiri's roster of clients reads like an issue of your favorite magazine. A native of Japan, she moved to New York in 2012 to work at a nail salon in Soho, where she soon became the go-to nail artist for fashion elite.

Now a full-time freelancer, she makes personal calls for top models, while balancing runway assignments from high-fashion designers. When not taking the fashion world by storm, Kawajiri uses her art as a tribute to things she believes in — most recently: Black Lives Matter and Pride.

You grew up in Kyoto, Japan. Did your childhood there influence your decision to be a nail artist?
"My father [designed] prints for clothes in Japan, so he had a very detailed eye. When I was a kid, he would show me two different prints on paper and ask: 'Mei, what’s the difference?' They would look exactly the same, but I had to find the tiny difference. So I learned to study small designs. But my inspiration really came after I moved to Tokyo. I saw so many crazy designs and color combinations. I was inspired by everything — women's vintage jewelry, antique shops, all of it."

How did you get into the industry?
"When I was 19 studying at a university in Japan, I found a nail-art book at a bookstore. I love tiny art, and I thought this is perfect for me because I can show off the art on my body. So I moved to Tokyo when I was 20 and started working at a nail salon. Then I opened my own nail salon [in Japan] at 23.
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What was it like to run your own business?
"I was doing nails every day from 9 a.m. to midnight; it was crazy! I was definitely a workaholic, and I realized I needed something new. I had a photographer friend in New York who said I should try out my designs there. So I moved there in 2012 and started working at a nail salon in Soho called Valley. I couldn't speak English, so I was showing my work through my iPad. I got so many clients; after a few months, I went freelance and started doing photo shoots. It took off from there."

As a freelancer, you're sort of your own boss. What are the benefits and challenges?
"I love to make my own schedule; it's the best situation. In the beginning, I had an agency because I didn't know how to negotiate or communicate with clients. They helped me so much and were very supportive. But now I'm completely freelance. As an artist, it's nice to be able to be a little more creative and not stress too much about business. Now I can talk directly with stylists and photographers, and we can share what we want to do. I feel more freedom; I understand them and they understand me. The problem is so many people reach out to me and I want to do everyone's nails, but unfortunately I don't have enough time!"

You've done some crazy designs — from cartoons to tie-dye. What’s your favorite?
"There are so many works that I've done that I love, like charms or brand logos. I think one of my favorites was what I did for [a men's fashion show], fast food designs. I love my own nails, too. As an artist, doing nails for other people's hands or my own nails is very different. Of course, I do create for others, but the best work is always my nails because that’s what I really love. It's like being a painter: You get to be as creative as you want!"
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Designed by Richard Chance.
Sophie Harris-Greenslade
London-born Sophie Harris-Greenslade stumbled upon her passion for nail art almost by accident. She was still looking for a job after graduating university (with a degree in illustration and animation), when her mom — a beauty teacher — suggested she take some nail-art classes as a way to make money on the side.

To help get the side gig off the ground, Sophie started a blog called The Illustrated Nail, where she posted pictures of her intricate, art-inspired designs. But instead of remaining a side gig, the job took off — leading to a big break in 2012 when she was asked to do a prominent musician’s nails for a high-fashion shoot. Today, she balances individual clients with bigger editorial projects.

In some ways, you were primed to be a success in the nail-art world. How did that happen?
"My mom has been in the beauty industry for 20 years, and she always had a passion for nails. She was a beauty teacher in London and was one of the first to introduce nail art to colleges in the 1990s. It was a big trend back then, so I always saw my mom painting nails — I remember she once painted someone's nails with sparkly Union Jacks to match [that iconic '90s] dress. I loved doing it, too, but I never thought I'd have a career [in it]."
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What became so appealing to you about it?
"It was like illustration on a smaller canvas — so it still was art but using a different medium. I liked the challenge too; when I first started doing it, I wanted to do more and more intricate designs and come up with new ideas. Illustrating can be quite isolating at times — you usually work at home on your desk. Doing nail art [allowed me to meet] new people but also give them my illustrations. Being able to create but also meet amazing people is really fun."

Your designs are super intricate, from floral patterns to buildings. Where do you get your inspiration?
"Literally everywhere. Inspiration, you can take it from everything: graphic shapes, architectural curves, prints, patterns, so many things around town. I usually carry sketchbooks with me so I can jot things down, and I take a camera to capture things I want to recreate."

You completely switched course after going to university. What advice would you give women who are considering trying a new field?
"Just go for it. I think if you go for it, your confidence and strength will grow. I’ve had to overcome certain things: I had a fear of public speaking, and I now have to talk in videos and stuff. In the beginning, I was always shy, and getting in front of a camera was daunting. But I made myself do it. If you just get out there, the more you do it, the more you’ll overcome it, and the more confidence you’ll get. You can do it."
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