NEW YORK — Yayo was poring over a pair of hands, one of the three to five she tends to any given day at Vanity Projects in Manhattan. With a small pair of scissors she cut and placed a thin foil on each nail, creating boundaries for the polish. Then, with the pad of her index finger and thumb, she held the tiniest of brushes and painted white polish within the lines. The final touch was a fine gold powder that she sprinkled over a clear base and buffed to a shine.
The artist herself wears elaborate 8-inch-long nails covered in crystals and handmade 3-D appliqués. Yayo calls them her “superlong bling-bling nails.” Think Edward Scissorhands, but with diamond-encrusted talons instead of shears. While she works, the clicking of her nails is often the only sound that can be heard.
The way we wear our nails, whether bare or bedazzled, can say a lot about individual style. Practicality and professional provisions are no longer limits to personal expression. Aesthetics have turned nails into elaborate easels.
Those who see Jenny Bui, known as the “Queen of Bling,” in the Bronx tend toward the multidimensional. “Cheap nails aren’t good, and good nails aren’t cheap,” said Bui, the nail technician who keeps Cardi B rich in acrylic nails. Bui works out of her Fordham Road salon, Jenny’s Spa, where she creates her signature stiletto nails layered with Swarovski crystals. People travel from as far away as Australia for private sessions with her.
Amina, who has been a customer for two years, visits Jenny’s two or three times a month. The “blinged out” acrylic nails Bui creates for her are striking, with oversize crystals that take up to four hours to arrange and adhere.
Vanity Projects, where Yayo works, is known for its bespoke nails and gallery-like experience. The owner, Rita Pinto, is an art curator who hosts a residency with visiting nail professionals from around the world.
“My personal nail style is reminiscent of my work as a designer,” said Jules Kim, a jewelry designer who is one of Yayo’s clients. “I like to combine the visual simplicity with ingenuity, in either shape or application of a jewel.” She stressed the importance of nails “that never take away from the jewelry pieces I present on my hand.”
Nearby, at Akiko Nails, Christina F. Richardson watched as Tahsiyn Harley created a design that reflected a traditional Japanese nail art experience. Using the Time’s Up movement, black history and the Santeria religion as inspiration, Harley drew portraits of women on Richardson’s accent nails, and painted the others yellow, which represents the Santeria goddess Oshun.
In most cases, the nail design process is a collaboration that merges customer recommendations and artists’ tastes. Naomi Yasuda, an independent nail artist whose Rolodex includes Madonna, Lady Gaga and Kesha, invites her customers to come to appointments with ideas in mind, which she then brings to life.
Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure,” said that the mainstreaming of hip-hop and urban fashion, in tandem with Japanese nail technology, has contributed to contemporary nail art aesthetics.
“Our obsession with mobile devices has also been hugely influential, allowing us to capture the minute detail of nail art and broadcast it to the whole world,” Shapiro said.
In the 1970s, nail art was a novelty offered at a limited number of salons, and women of color were often early adopters, opting for styles that were bolder in length and design. Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner, known as Flo Jo, and singers Glodean White and Minnie Riperton were known for their long and decorative nail styles. Riperton would even bring a full-time nail artist on tour with her.
Many of the technological and style innovations have come out of Japan. Gel nail technology, introduced in the United States in the 1980s, dries much faster and lasts longer than standard polish. This technology allowed artists to create more elaborate designs, with stencils, 3-D elements and more.
These complex works have found a natural home on social media, with nail artists and their clients posting often on Instagram and fostering a diverse global community that extends far beyond the streets of New York City. It’s good for business: One can find designs, trends and artists from all over the world with the tap of a manicured fingertip.