black beauty matters

Nail Art Is More Than a Style Statement

It’s Black history and culture.

For decades, Black women have taken pride in the divinity of their nails. Glossy lacquer was a stage and album-cover staple for Donna Summer and Diana Ross; Flo-Jo set Olympic records in a beadazzled red, white, and blue manicure; and as hip-hop and R&B rose to prominence, so did the popularity of bold French tips and long, curved acrylics, worn by everyone from SWV to Lil’ Kim.

Growing up in Jamaica, Queens, New York, fluorescent colors and exaggerated designs were the highest form of self-expression — on nails, specifically. As in, the ones worn by the women in my family and in our neighborhood. I couldn’t wait to wear my nails like that, too. (And I did have to wait, because in my moms’ household, they were “too grown” for me.)

Today, intricate manicures are all over the pages of leading fashion and beauty magazines, and a host of celebrities have made complex nail designs part of their trademark style. Google “Who started the long nail trend?” and Kylie Jenner is often the first result — a fact that would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting. For years, long nails were deemed “ghetto” by many outside of the Black community, and the nail styles born in the Black community aren’t a trend — they’re a part of our history and culture.

Communities like Instagram’s @BlkGirlNailfies are rightfully putting Black women front and center of the nail-art conversation. They’re an online oasis for women who, like me, find beauty and inspiration in designs that are often imitated by the masses. They’re also where I’ve discovered some of my favorite Black nail artists and their manicure-obsessed clients and muses.

Ahead, five such duos — including me and my nail artist — delve into our love of the art, the emotion it evokes, and what certain designs mean to us.

Nail Artist Tahsiyn Harley

and Momo Yusuff, Producer

Momo Yusuff. Video: Courtney Sofiah Yates
Tahsiyn Harley. Photo: Courtney Sofiah Yates

A 14-year-old Momo would go to the nail salon after school, request acrylic nails, then go home and get yelled at by her mom, who disapproved of her teenage daughter getting such long nails. As an adult, those same long nails tell people who she is — a creative, fun, and sassy woman. She likes for her signature almond-shaped nails to turn heads, and they do with the help of Tahsiyn. The nail artist believes Black women have stories to tell, and she translates them. “Black people are not a monolith,” Tahsiyn says. “We are vibrant and colorful and bold [and] we express our styles in so many beautiful ways. Nails are a way of making a statement and rebellion against mainstream beauty standards surrounding Black women.”

When looking for a nail artist, it was important for Momo to find a Black person who understood her and her sensibilities. She found that in Tahsiyn. Whether her nails are long, short, or design-focused, or emphasize their almond shape, they make her feel feminine, sexy, and confident. For this set, Tahsiyn was inspired by wall art around the city. She combined that inspiration with her signature pops of color for a pastel-and-neon design with a matte finish.

Nail Artist Gina Edwards

and Renée McRae, Poet and Motivational Speaker

Renée McRae. Video: Courtney Sofiah Yates
Renée McRae (left) and Gina Edwards (right). Photo: Courtney Sofiah Yates

As cousins, Gina and Renée enjoy their nail sessions because it gives them time to catch up on family, life, and everything in between. And in addition to quality time, Gina gets a dose of encouragement from Renée, who is a poet and motivational speaker. “My nails are a part of my image onstage and off,” Renée says. “I speak with my hands, I hold the mic with my hands, and I use my hands for emphasis.” Not only in her career, but in her everyday life as a Black woman, Renée feels like her nails are a beautiful and necessary accessory. “When my nails are done, I feel like I look finished. I like my nails to say that I care about how I look.”

With Gina, she’s in the right hands. The nail artist enjoys telling stories with her work that are uplifting, fun, and glamorous. Transparent, hot-pink jelly nails accented with Swarovski crystals check off all the boxes. “Nail culture has been the driving force for out-of-the-box creativity, and Black women don’t do simple,” she says. “We elevate and we create with vibrancy.”

Nail Artist Aja Walton

and Mikael Cummings, Model

Mikael Cummings. Video: Courtney Sofiah Yates

Aja’s clients usually go home, but, as she puts it, “Mikael never left.” The two met on the set of an editorial shoot, and Mikael was “taken aback by how detailed and efficient she was.” He didn’t hesitate to ask for contact information, and after more nail sessions and conversations, they started dating.

Mikael Cummings (left) and Aja Walton (right). Photo: Courtney Sofiah Yates

“There are endless labels and restrictions placed on Black women whenever we choose to confidently illustrate ourselves,” says Aja, who views her own nails as an extension of her Blackness. “We resist all of those in the beauty world and do whatever excites us.” And the same goes for many men. “I love the idea behind breaking gender norms through fashion,” says Mikael, who welcomes the attention he sometimes gets for having his nails painted. “Nails to me as a Black man tells a lot indirectly about how well you take care of yourself. They’re an added boost of confidence for me when I arrive on set looking and feeling my best.”

That attitude is what Aja aims to capture when creating nail art for him. “[Mikael] confidently balances his masculine and bold nature with touches of femininity and elegance,” she says. “I wanted to bring that juxtaposition to his nails.” The latest result? A silver chrome powder rubbed beneath hand-painted pastel flowers — inspired by his graphic chrome pearl necklace.

Nail Artist Shani Evans

and Tanya Manderson, Filmmaker

Tanya Manderson. Video: Courtney Sofiah Yates
Tanya Manderson (left) and Shani Evans (right). Photo: Courtney Sofiah Yates

Shani Evans can count on one hand the number of times she’s had her nails professionally done, but when she has, they’ve made a statement. “They were doper than dope and you couldn’t tell me shit,” she says. Still, it took a while for her to see nail art as a career. “I was a late bloomer in the beauty world and didn’t start thinking of nails and their art as anything more than a hobby or an overall aesthetic to be admired until I was in my late 30s.” When Graves’ disease stopped her from regularly working as a bartender, she started to paint her nails as a soothing technique. At the time, Instagram was still in its infancy, and she began booking assistant gigs when she posted her work. From there, her career blossomed.

Shani and Tanya met 17 years ago, initially bonding over a shared love of rock music. In the years since, Shani has helped Tanya kick her nail-biting habit, creating designs like the one conceived for this shoot — short black nails adorned with green, gold, and copper chrome glitter as an ode to her and Tanya’s passion for rock. Shani’s designs include a Bowie belt, a Basquiat crown, and abstract gold metallic gel.

Nail Artist Tolani Rosa

and Asia Milia Ware, Junior Fashion and Beauty Writer at the Cut

Asia Milia Ware. Video: Courtney Sofiah Yates

Tolani Rosa is new to the nail-art profession, but she’s been preparing for it her whole life. As a middle- and high-schooler, she often stayed up late picking out outfits to match her nails. “The way [some] women feel when they walk past a mirror is the way I feel when I look down to write or I’m at a cash register,” Rosa says. “[Everything from] the length, to the shape, to the vibrant colors or textures makes me feel superhuman,” she adds.

Tolana Rosa. Photo: Courtney Sofiah Yates

As Tolani’s client and best friend, I’ve gone from the girl who didn’t want nails so long they’d interfere with my workouts to someone who requests the longest nails with the most creative designs. (It’s a lifestyle, and everything else around me has to adapt.) Long nails make me feel powerful — from the sounds they make when I’m typing to how they look with a matching outfit. The stares I get in the gym when I’m lifting weights and onlookers fear I’ll break them is priceless.

“It’s very important for Black women to feel unapologetic in the things we deem beautiful,” Tolani says, and I agree. If her nails could speak, they would say, “Go for it, don’t dim your light, let everyone adjust.” That’s the vibe I get from these textured nails. The 3-D crocodile print is her most-requested design, so she aims to change it up every time she does it so no two clients ever get the same set of nails. “To create more dimension, I did a two-tone marble beneath the croc print to add an underlying effect to the design,” she explains. “After the marble was done, I hand-drew every single line on the nails to create the croc print and poured acrylic powder on top for the 3-D effect.” The compliments have been endless and always are, but witnessing the artistry of my best friend while simultaneously fueling my confidence is better than any compliment could ever be.

Nail Art Is More Than a Style Statement — It’s Black Culture