Okay, if someone asked you what images popped into your mind when you heard “nail art,” would it be something like the image below? (Or, art drawn on the head of a nail…for those particularly out there people.)

In fact, most style gurus out there decree nail art a DON’T; declaring it “tacky.” (Okay, the above image is…well, definitely NOT practical, and not really pretty, to be perfectly honest. There was tons of work that went into it, but yeah, it does look a little tacky.) (I also, on a side note, find it funny that say, Marie Claire will declare the exact phrase above…and then the Marie Claire Japan will showcase the nail art of some Japanese celebs in the same month. Different markets.)

Well anyway, the people who think of tacky stuff when it comes to nail art are probably thinking about the above, or the plethora of airbrushed designs that dominate U.S. nail salon art requests.

You guys probably know about this already, but just in case…

Japan has, hands down, the most innovative nail art EVER. Sure it only caught on in Japan in like the mid-to-late 90’s. Sure Koreans are probably known for populating U.S. manicurist/nail art salons. Sure Korean nail art is fantastic too, and Korea has definitely introduced some advances to the industry. But the Japanese have completely appropriated U.S. nail art…and made it superb.

Reverse manicure with clear tips and half moon, and black nail bed + some sequins.

It wasn’t until 1998 that I really started noticing nail art on every trendy girl’s fingers in Tokyo. I mean, growing up there I always felt, no matter how much effort I put into my appearance, I was always sloppy, messy, and uncoordinated compared to the super-clean, super-put-together Japanese girls. They really thought out everything about their outfits…and then in the late 90’s they were perfect down to the tips of their fingers and toes.

I never really saw nail art as “tacky;” it was the crowning touch to a perfect outfit.

{As a side note: I had this dream of becoming a nail artist once…then I realized I only liked doing my nails…and having pretty nail art on them. Nail artists always have messed up nails from doing everyone else’s!
So I routinely practiced on my own nails…until I had a baby. [Okay, a lot of my sentences end that way…not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing.:-)] I did freehand drawing, stamping, and embellishment, as well as acrylic overlay and acrylic sculpture…I’m right-handed so my left hand’s nails would always look fabulous but my right hand’s would be all wonky when it came to sculpture…I still sport a nail piercing from time to time, and still have my gigantic nail art kit which is begging to be used again.}

Acrylic sculpture with 3D “bubble” where rhinestones are actually knocking about in there.

Japanese nail art (though the stuff in magazines runs the gamut from the trendy to the salon offerings, to the challenging, to the more conceptual, “artistic” show pieces like the set at the top) tends to focus more on acrylic sculpture than the U.S. (Though gel nails are now all over the place, I think nail artists still go for acrylic because of the enormous 3D possibilities.) The average customer coming into a nail salon in the U.S. will ask for a French manicure, maybe a little rhinestone or flower detailed on one nail or a toenail, maybe an acrylic overlay (over plastic tips that are glued onto the nail bed). But art actually made out of acrylic sculpture??? Unh unh. [Well okay, you can get that stuff at the nail salons in Honolulu, where the Japanese tourist population is immense…but I’m talking your average salon, even the ones that are featured in magazines as being an “authority” on nails.] I had never heard of it until I was watching late-night Japanese TV when I was 12 and I saw a manicurist create a nail out of this powder and liquid. She put a foil paper under this lady’s nails and created new, long nails out of liquid!! I was floored – how could such a thing exist??? I searched high and low in the U.S. for this magic stuff for years afterwards…and after the internet came kept searching…but the selection was always few and far between compared to what they had in Japan.

Clear acrylic sculpture nails with embedded sliced venetian glass millefiori beads.

It also seems like there is a huge contingent of Japanese girls out there (late teens – early 30’s) who are doing their own nails – and are spectacular at it. Nail art is a HUGE hobby for girls in Japan, yet in the U.S., there might be some people who are gung ho about it, but it definitely doesn’t feature in the forefront of fashion rags, TV shows, or celeb’s styled “looks.”
So just as in introduction….here’s just a smattering from my magazine collection…I know they’re really old but I haven’t felt like buying it since I can’t really do any of this stuff while I have a small child and spend my days doing housework and cooking… {whaaat….you thought I did other things??? You thought I lead a fashionable life??? LOL} But for me, this stuff is still so inspirational and mind-boggling…and, IMHO, it even looks pretty.

Well, except for this. It’s a cool concept (which is why I posted it), but not that pretty. Again, a contest-winning set of nails, not in the “fashionable” category methinks.

Kanoko Miura, personal nail artist to Hamasaki Ayumi (or Ayu…basically, think the Beyonce of Japan). Her nail art is on the more tame side than the typical stuff you see on the fashionistas in Tokyo…but checkout those nails with that paint drip on the ends!! So cool.

Nails with acryclic scultped 3D shapes placed UNDER the tips so you only see the shapes when looking at the tips straight one. Weird.

Blue-tinted clear
acrylic sculpture with air bubbles added via syringe while solution was still soft

Nails made to look like faceted gemstones by placing carefully-folded foil pieces over soft colored acrylic sculpture.

Manicurist Student Nail Art. Tons and tons of acrylic 3D sculpture. Fab!

Acrylic sculpted nails with working (sculpted) heart-shaped hourglass filled with sand. In case you ever need to time an egg on the go.

Gel-based “bubble” over clear tips with painted art below.

Some salon offerings. It’s really old, but at least you can see the range that appeals to customers over there.

Acrylic sculpture nails with blue glitter nailpolish and embedded sliced seashells and starfish. (They mean “AquaRium Nails” LOL) I was so in love with this idea I went the whole nine yards and actually had mine done specially at a salon so the right and left hands would match – for my animation school graduation. Mine were clear, with embedded holographic foil chips and tiny pink clamshells. It’s hard to see in the photo below, but they’re there.

Hope this has inspired you to start looking at your nails in a whole new light…a blank canvas, if you will, for innovation!


Photos from
NailMAX magazine issues ’00, ’01, Summer ’02, Winter 2002 [they changed their numbering system after a couple issues], Autumn 2003, and Spring/Summer 2004.

And sorry, Martha, for deleting your comment from this original post…Blogger dashboard messed this up and published it in its first draft before I completed my changes. I could only repost it at a later date by deleting your comment! So sorry – no offense intended!



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