Sculptural nail art inspired by nature, and a “punk futuristic kawaii set” by Danica Morunga.
Trying a new nail design is a low-stakes way to experiment with your look. And unlike some fashion trends circulating youth culture right now, you don’t have to have a particular body type or bone structure to get down with the world of nail art.
Before social media, if you wanted a special nail design you would be limited to what was on offer at your local salon (a heart or flowers, maybe a rhinestone or two), as an “add on” service to your normal manicure, about $5 a piece. These days, if you want something truly unique, you find a local nail artist on Instagram and book an appointment – although you might be on their waitlist for weeks.
“I think social media has really shown what can be done on nails,” says Tilly Merson, a nail technician based in Hawke’s Bay who runs the Instagram account @morning.glory_nails. “People are seeing there’s a whole other world that isn’t just one colour or a French tip. So many nail artists are able to share their creations and it’s just so amazing to see what’s out there.”
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Merson, who works from a small private studio in Havelock North, was an artist who switched to training in nails in 2020 for a change of pace. Now, she is highly regarded throughout the area as an artist who can quite literally create the nails of your dreams: from disco balls to slugs, or even van Gogh’s Starry Night.
“My friend Alex asked for the carpet from The Shining. I remember saying: ‘oh yeah, no worries man I’ve got it,’ before actually looking at it and thinking – I’ve stitched myself up. That carpet is a geometric nightmare when you can’t use rulers or pencils,” says Merson.
Another talent pushing the boundaries with nail art is Auckland-based Danica Morunga, who specialises in natural length nails with a “builder gel” base. While her more “extreme” requests are generally for events or photoshoots, the nail art on her regular clients (of all genders), “isn’t always as challenging but it’s just as fashionable.”
“YouTube tutorials on nail art got me going when I was younger, but I got self conscious (as you do) going into high school thinking it wasn’t ‘cool’ enough. Fast track to nowadays and the pandemic, I’m not entirely sure how but I got straight back into it again. With all the new technology, trends and spare time I was presented with, it became my new niche of creative expression.”
For Wellington-based Hannah Ballantyne of the Instagram account @nails_you_can_have, her passion for the craft came after six years of getting her own nails done. “As a high school dropout with a passion for creativity I realised this could be a good avenue for me to take,” she says. “My original nail tech [@purrfect.nails] taught me the essentials, and was always there for me during my journey, letting me steal supplies off her when I ran out.”
Search the hashtag #nailart on TikTok or Instagram and you’ll get an idea of the diverse designs and endless possibilities that can come to life on a nail, using materials that aren’t traditionally cosmetic.
“You can literally use anything when you have the knowledge of how to combine it with the correct products,” says Morunga. “I love experimenting with natural materials on nails, like rose thorns for example.
“The interest and appreciation for heavily styled nails is definitely growing here, but trying to source someone in the area who can do it to satisfaction can be tough, not to mention the time it takes to actually get them done.”
While the instant-gratification of social media may have pushed more requests for nail art, many technicians find the slow, tactile nature of the medium keeps them inspired. Behind every Instagram post is an unseen one-on-one session up to four hours long, filled with real conversation and connection.
“My favourite nail clients are actually the ones I can connect with. It’s a very social job and can sometimes be deflating after a long day, but being able to connect with people who live life like you do and experience the same human feelings is rewarding to me,” says Morunga.
Similarly, Merson’s clients have found wearing her 3D designs to have a positive effect on their mental health. “I’ve had a few clients say they love the texture because it’s like having a built-in fidget spinner and having 3D nails helps with anxiety,” she says.
“More than the income the best part for me is the way it makes my clients feel after the service,” says Ballantyne, who has become close friends with some of her dedicated regular clients.