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Eichi Matsunaga’s unreal experiments are the future of nail art

The Japanese nail artist gives us the inside track on his Insta-famous designs

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“I’m actually working with Erykah Badu right now, and we’ve collaborated on a few different nail sets. She’s going to post them soon on her Instagram,” shares Eichi Matsunaga about what’s he currently working on. What could a nail artiste crafting futuristic fingernail masterpieces that incorporate the whole hand as well and the iconically offbeat musician possibly dream up? Something that you’ve never seen before, that’s for sure. Maybe something Matsunaga hasn’t done before either as his experiments with 3D printing have enabled animated flames, functional robotic links, geometric cut-outs, sparkly hearts and more to grace the nails of Drag Race fave Violet Chachki, Nicki Minaj, and his other clients.

To say Tokyo-born, New York City-based Matsunaga is talented is true but ‘genius’ is a better descriptor for the invention and meticulous application of his ‘accessories’ – made from plastic, metal and more – that extend the design beyond the nail and the meticulous detail is best admired under a microscope. Far beyond anything your local nail salon could pull together, it’s no surprise that he’s a go-to in fashion circles and has done campaigns and editorials for the likes of Vogue Japan, Opening Ceremony, and Dazed. Yet another Japanese nail export pushing the boundaries of nail art with every original, fantastical set, Instagram videos showing them in motion prove that they’re also (largely) life-proof. 

Here, Matsunaga talks us through his innovative designs and trajectory, and shares why the smell of acrylic nails motivates him.

Where are you from? 

Eichi Matsunaga: I live in NYC now, but I’m originally from Tokyo. I grew up in Meguro, which is near Shibuya. Some people don’t like how busy it is there but I thought it was perfect and a great place to grow up. I feel much freer in NYC than when I lived in Japan, though, as I can be myself a little bit more and just focus on my work.    

Why did you decide to become a nail artist?

Eichi Matsunaga: It was my sister who really inspired me to become a nail artist. She was working at a nail salon when I graduated from high school and I used to help her prepare nail art samples for the salon at her apartment. Through this, I discovered that nails were my calling, and I enrolled in a nail art school soon after that. I did nail art in Tokyo for eight years, then I moved to NYC where I’ve been continuing my work for about two years now. 

What are you trying to communicate through your work and why?

Eichi Matsunaga: I don’t really have a specific message but I’d like to push nail art forward. Not being afraid of my own creativity was an important lesson that I had to learn. These days I try to go beyond my expectations and imagination to find designs that are wholly new.  I want to show people who are interested in nail art what is possible with this medium – my message to aspiring nail artists is don’t doubt yourself and create what is inside your head.  

Who or what inspires you? 

Eichi Matsunaga: Akihabara in Tokyo. It is kind of a mecca for anime, manga, and electronics. I used to go there once a week when I lived in Tokyo and I still get so many materials from there. It’s like looking at the future of technology and culture.

Can you talk us through some of your nail designs?

Eichi Matsunaga: Recently I’ve been using a 3D printer to make accessories for different nail designs. It’s a great tool to express a modern, robot-like theme. Many of these new accessories aren’t actually on the nails themselves but on the fingers or hands. I get tired of the same designs quickly so these off-nail accessories are a new way to express my ideas.  People’s reactions have been really positive to this, so I’d like to continue in this direction for now.

For other designs, I use crystals which give the nails a classic, glam style. My nails usually verge on the futuristic but I am still very interested in traditional methods and want to incorporate them. I’ve used crystals ever since I started doing nails so I am comfortable with them and love to add them to different designs.  

What’s been your career highlight so far and what do you hope to accomplish ultimately?

Eichi Matsunaga: I’ve been lucky to make the designs that I want to make for many great people (Lorde, Lily Allen, and Nicki Minaj) so I consider that to be my highlight. In the future, I’d like to explore possibilities off the nail, like finger props and background designs that complement the nails themselves.

You have to replace your body with that of an animal or a mythological creature. What do you go for and why?

Eichi Matsunaga: Any animal that has good eyes because mine are bad.

What’s your favourite smell and why?

Eichi Matsunaga: I love the smell of acrylic nails because it reminds me of strong, independent women. When I was working at a nail salon in Roppongi, a lot of really empowered women used to come in and get long acrylic nails. I really enjoyed that experience and working with those women because their attitudes were a refreshing change in Japanese culture. The smell motivates me.  

How do you assert your identity through your nail art?

Eichi Matsunaga: My philosophy is that detail is everything. There is a direct connection between my work and other cultural Japanese traditions in Japan, and the overarching theme is the careful attention to each stage of a process. With origami, for example, you must make sure each fold is perfect or else it is actually impossible to finish the piece. I believe my nail art is similar, and every single detail is crucial to the overall design.

You encounter a hostile alien race with an inability to see colour, while sound is their only mechanism for communication. What would you play to them to inspire them to spare you and the rest of the human race?

Eichi Matsunaga: I’d take them to a forest to listen to birds in their natural habitat. Hopefully, it calms them down. 

What does beauty mean to you?

Eichi Matsunaga: Health is a very important part of beauty, and by health, I mean mental as well as physical. Beauty originates from positive thinking and getting enough sleep.

Would you rather live forever as an old person or live your life in reverse?

Eichi Matsunaga: I’d rather live in reverse since life is too hard to keep living forever.

What is the future of beauty? 

Eichi Matsunaga: Maintaining good self-esteem and focusing on what is inside just as much as what is on the outside is going to really catch on. Staying confident and believing in yourself has always and will continue to be beautiful.