Chicago’s Fingernail Art Scene Has an Extravagant, Unique Style

The global explosion of nail art—and the distinct style Chicago pioneered—is on display now at three installations in town.

PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY DZINE

As a lifelong nail-biter, I wasn’t aware of the recent “global explosion” of nail art, as described by artist Helen Maurene Cooper. She is an expert on Chicago’s particular style of nail art, which she says is “really different” than what’s happening in other cities. Cooper first became interested in the aesthetics of personalized nail art in 2008, and now her close-up and portrait photographs of women flashing their finger art are on view in the historic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue.

Like an anthropologist in the field, Cooper had to immerse herself in Chicago’s nail art scene in order to photograph the decorated fingers, and now she is a dedicated wearer of artificial painted nails, especially from Naughty Nailz on Chicago’s West Side. West Side nail salons in particular are of interest to Cooper because they are community hang-outs for women, much like barber shops are for men. “It’s a social thing,” she says. It’s also an ethnicity thing and a class thing and a cultural thing. In our hyper-segregated city, the nail salons tend to be as diverse as public schools.

What is it about our homegrown nail art that makes it so authentically Midwestern? Cooper says it’s all about how the paint is used. The “money” style is a particular Midwest innovation, says Cooper, and the nail technicians are using paint, not nail polish, to create the look. More than that, Cooper says she wants to highlight the confident community that comes together over nail art designs. These women are “doing their thing, wearing it proud,” she says.

Perhaps the most difficult nail art appointment to get this summer will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art. As part of the Homebodies exhibition opening this weekend, local artist Carlos “Dzine” Rolon has re-created his childhood living room, where his mother did nails, in a museum gallery. Dzine has installed this performance in several other cities, but the “Imperial Nail Salon (my parents’ living room)” will be its first time in Chicago. Dzine’s nail art style tends to favor some brazen bling like costume jewelry dripping off the nails (as seen above). The appointments will be taken on select days, are free with museum admission, and will be in high demand.

A third nail art event this weekend, by a self-described “self-effacing hustler” named AstroWifey, is part of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition “Starving Artist” fundraiser on Saturday, June 29. Alongside Top Chef’s Fabio Viviano, artist Theaster Gates, and a taco battle, AstroWifey will interpret the artwork of prominent Chicago artists Cody Hudson, Claire Ashley, and Sabina Ott into nail art designs. Tickets start at $75, but AstroWifey’s work looks top-shelf.

For more info on this booming trend, Cooper recommends Nailgasm, a short online documentary.

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