Nail Art Provides Outlet for Creativity and Cultural Expression

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In California, manicures are big business. Nail services nationwide represent a booming $8.3 billion industry that hit a record high in 2013. For Southern California graphic designers, illustrators and painters, nail art is a way to make some money off their work.

In a tiny West Hollywood studio apartment, nail artists Natalie Minerva and Britney Tokyo sit with a friend and client, Roxy Ferrari. Tokyo pulls out a binder thick with nail decals and slides it across the table to Ferrari, who lands on a design by local artist Ana Guajardo. "Oh my God. I have to," Ferrari laughs, selecting her decals. "She has Biggie Smalls stickers, that's awesome. He's giving a face for sure. He's mean mugging."

Tokyo gets to work filing Ferrari's nails, shaping her cuticles and applying a few decals of 1990s rap icon.

Guajardo, an L.A.-based graphic designer who made the Biggie decals, started her business, Cha Cha Covers, a few years ago. She was up late one night watching YouTube videos about nail art when she came up with an idea for a new product. "A light bulb went off in my head," Guajardo said. "I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, can you imagine the Virgin of Guadalupe on your nails? Or Frida Kahlo on your nails?' What that would look like?"

Ana Guajardo of Cha Cha Covers applies decals to her 6-year-old daughter Fatima's nails. She designed a vintage sweater pattern and snowman for the occasion. Photo: Caitlin Esch/KQED

Guajardo wanted to create a line that reflected her style as a 30-something, Mexico-born, Texas-bred, L.A. resident, nostalgic for the hip-hop fashions of her youth. "Our identity is so much more complex than what you see on these major Spanish-language networks," she said. "And I think what I'm doing, it really speaks to like being bicultural in the U.S."


Guajardo's decals are mashups of Mexican iconography and pop culture: Day of the Dead sugar skulls, Mexican wrestlers and papel picados -- those cutout paper flags -- mixed with images of pop stars like Morrissey. "I chopped off his head and added a little papel picado flag underneath and created a Morrissey bust," Guajardo said, pointing to one of her most popular designs.

Guajardo designs, prints and packages the decals from home. She sells them online for about $6 a set. She uses some public domain images. Others, she significantly alters to avoid copyright issues.

Photo: Caitlin Esch/KQED

Guajardo's designs are popular among nail artists who take her decals and add paint, charms and designs during custom manicures. But is nail art really art? "Yeah, I believe nail art is art," said Chelsea Kent, owner and operator of Scratch Nail Wraps, a company that partners with graphic designers, illustrators and painters to produce collections of nail decals. "It means they get to reach more of their audience with their piece of work," Kent said. "So, for example, instead of one painting -- 500-plus people could be wearing that one painting on their nails."

Back in West Hollywood, nail artist Natalie Minerva said she also considers a good manicure a form of art. "I think most nail artists, we're visual people to begin with, and (we) had other outlets and then found this and were like, wait, this is an amazing outlet for art, and I can get paid every day for doing it."

After 90 minutes, Roxy Ferrari's manicure is complete. "I love my nails," she said. "They look very glamorous. Like, rich, glamorous."

Business is growing so fast for Guajardo that she can barely keep up with demand. Soon, she hopes to turn her do-it-yourself side project into a full-time job.