Not Your Mother’s Nail Tech

Self-taught nail artists are ditching salons and working independently in New York.

Marbles Valdez (right) photographed her nail art on her client Brianna Flores (left) to share with her 10,000 followers on Instagram. Credit: Chantal Vaca for NY City Lens (February 16 2022).

Imani Myers quit her $90,000 a year banking job last May to pursue her true calling as a nail artist. Six months later, she opened her studio in Midtown. And today, the 25-year-old makes eight to ten thousand dollars a month.

Myers is one of several up-and-coming self-taught nail artists that began to experiment with nail design during the pandemic. She posted her work online and gained enough traction to open up shop in New York. Cooped up at home during the early months of the pandemic when salons were closed, nail artists like Myers began their endeavors in the same way: ordering supplies on Amazon, learning through video tutorials and practicing on themselves.

Marbles Valdez picked up nail art toward the end of March 2020 while she was studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology. A little over one year later, she left the fashion business management program, became a full-time nail artist and opened MVZ Beauty Studio in the Lower East side.

Her local shop could only do the basics, Valdez said. “But I wanted to go crazy. I wanted to do what I was seeing on Instagram. I wanted to do all the cute, little luxurious things. And I was like, ‘Let me take matters into my own hands.’”

A national study of nail salon workers conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2018 found that New York has issued 33,751 nail specialists licenses, which, they note, is close to double the amount found by the U.S. Census American Community Survey. The report concluded that the actual number of nail specialists is “much higher” than the estimates and the numbers suggest that government data sources are only accounting for 47% of certified nail workers in New York. Within this decade, the employment of manicurists and pedicurists in the U.S. is projected to grow 33%, which is much faster than the average 8% growth rate for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Interest in nail art has steadily grown in popularity over the past decade. In 2018, nail art was one of the top five most tagged items on both Instagram and Pinterest, the UCLA report found. Word of mouth has certainly helped these up-and-coming nail artists gain clients and secure gigs, like working on set during New York Fashion Week or with celebrities like Whitney Peak, who plays Zoya on HBO’s reboot of Gossip Girl. But it is ultimately the sharing of their own work through Instagram or Tiktok that has secured nail artists a loyal base of clients and has brought in more money than they would have made working at a salon under someone else’s management.

NAILS Magazine 2020 annual report found that 23% of the cross-section of readers they polled via an online survey started beauty school between the ages of 18 and 20, trailing behind the 41% of people who started beauty school at 30-years-old and up. In 2019, people who started beauty school at 25-years-old and under accounted for 2% of those surveyed.

“Ever since I was in middle school, I wanted to have crazy nails, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that, only celebrities get that. Cardi B’s nail tech is the only one that can do all these crazy rhinestones, and they cost like hundreds and hundreds of dollars,’” said Valdez. “It just felt so inaccessible and now with younger people coming through and bringing in new ideas, it makes it more accessible for people my age to be more expressive.”

Nail artists that have tried to work with salons say there is a range of factors that ultimately led them to go it alone. On the pay front, not only are the hourly rates lower than the artists would set them independently, the salons also take a cut. One nail artist who is currently looking to work at a salon says some require a contract that would prevent her, should she choose to leave, from working within a five mile radius.

Jaden Kesse, a 24-year-old nail artist, lasted only a couple of months at a salon before renting out their own booth in Brooklyn. Kesse says they used to go to Vanity Projects, a nail salon in the Lower East Side, in high school and fell in love with nail art there. So, Kesse was thrilled when they got a job there in June. But the commission rate, which is a percentage of the total money charged that is split between the nail tech and salon owner, was taking too much from Kesse’s paycheck, so they left in August.

“It was a full circle moment that I could work for the salon that got me into nail art, but it didn’t work out,” said Kesse.

Before Valdez opened her studio in the Lower East Side, she worked at a nail salon on the same block, just a couple of shops away, as a 19-year-old. She now makes about $5,500 a month and hopes to transition into working with more celebrities or on a set for film and TV.

“I think they underestimated me at first because I was the youngest, and they were all in their 30s and 40s, and I was making more than them doing all this crazy stuff,” said Valdez.

Marbles Valdez opened MVZ Beauty Studio in the Lower East Side last August after she began experimenting with nail art during the early months of the pandemic. Her client Brianna Flores has been returning to the studio since it opened. Flores said, “What keeps me coming is the whole vibe and the fact that every time I show her a set of nails, she never says no.” Credit: Chantal Vaca for NY City Lens. (Feb 16 2022).