Meet the Japanese artist creating the nails of your wildest dreams
From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to makeup and nail artists, in our Spotlight series we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.
You may not have realised it at the time, but you’ve definitely seen Mei Kawajiri’s work. From Kim Kardashian on the cover of Richardson magazine to the Balenciaga and Tom Ford SS19 shows; the french tips Lily-Rose Depp sported for her turn as the Chanel ringmaster to Bella and Gigi’s Met Gala nails, Mei’s nail designs are everywhere. With 3D nail art in the shape of everything from Garfield to face-swapped Disney characters and boobs; Versace-esque safety pinned nails to designs that use real pressed-flowers, Mei is one of the most in-demand nail artists of the moment, and looking at her creativity, uniqueness, nerve and talent it’s not hard to see why.
Here we spoke to the Japanese nail artist about her inspirations, being a Pisces and the future of beauty.
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? How has your background shaped who you are as a person?
Mei Kawajiri: I grew up in Kyoto in Japan. I loved music and art at school but I didn’t like studying and was always drawing people’s faces in class. My father worked with textiles, so he taught me a lot about design.
Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Mei Kawajiri: I remember thinking I didn’t look beautiful. I had a more unique look and was always changing my hair colour or my make-up, I got bored very quickly. I was always painting my nails baby blue, bleaching my eyebrows, wearing high heel boots because I wanted to be taller, and talking to my mirror saying I wanted to be cooler.
Growing up what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Mei Kawajiri: Madonna, Elvis Presley, and Blondie were my icons then and now. I loved spending time looking at photography books at the bookstore. I always loved wild women with blonde hair and red lipstick. I loved boys with mohawks. Punk rockers were always my favourite.
How did you get into nail art?
Mei Kawajiri: I tried going to dance class but realised I had no talent. I took acting classes when I was in junior high school, as well as piano and singing lessons, but I realised I had no talent for them either. I was very interested in drawing, I would paint the sky from my room every day and decided to use my nails as a canvas, painting on such a small scale made it more fun for me. My style was unique and I was confident about it. I realised this was the thing I could be number one at.
Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Mei Kawajiri: I’m a Pisces, so every 10 minutes my mood is different. I never plan what I’m going to make next. My ideas come from everywhere, they are all from the moment and if I try to think about it too much it isn’t fun. It always depends on my mood, for example when I am tired and grumpy I make messy nails.
What is your relationship to “beauty”?
Mei Kawajiri: I’m not sure what beauty is. For me, beauty means looking confident with your style. I always make myself up like a cartoon character with my clothes, make-up, nails, hair clips.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Mei Kawajiri: My aesthetic is cartoony, not serious or classic. I love old American fashion from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I mix it with Harajuku style.
What are the projects that you’re most proud of?
Mei Kawajiri: I’m always proud of these kinds of interviews, shoots that focus on my nail art, my drawing collaboration with Google, and the Balenciaga show.
What’s the most significant thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career?
Mei Kawajiri: I’ve learned to always keep creating new ideas, and to keep changing instead of doing the same thing over and over. I’m not afraid to do something people have never done before and I’m not afraid of what people think. Basically, I always keep moving forward.
Where does your inspiration for the nail designs come from?
Mei Kawajiri: Movies, cartoons, trips, animals, street fashion, street culture, newspapers, the subway, trash, different cultures, Brooklyn, Italian movies, gangsta, pop singers, food, and just my weird imagination.
Are there any nail designs you dream of doing but haven’t had the chance to create?
Mei Kawajiri: Yes, I want to try more dynamic nail art as a performance, but I can’t tell you the details!
Do you get a lot of male clients? Have you noticed a change in the years you’ve been working?
Mei Kawajiri: Yes, a lot! Especially since I did the men’s show for Balenciaga a couple years ago. The designer Demna Gvasalia is also one of my clients. When I did a pop-up in Colette in Paris, 80 per cent of the clients were male – young fashion kids!
What is your dream project to work on?
Mei Kawajiri: I want to work on movies as a nail artist and I would love to work with an animation artist to make my nail art move and make it 3D.
Has the industry evolved since you first started out?
Mei Kawajiri: Nail art has evolved quickly. First, there were clear nails and nail art that features fruit, food, trips, birthdays. Then the big trend was hoop charms and big stones. Very bling bling, square shapes, ovals, jelly nails. It changes every month which is why I love it. The move from regular nail polish to gel technology was the biggest shift for nail art. Gel polish quality is now much better than a few years ago and the machines are smaller, faster and lighter.
What advice would you give to young nail artists hoping to get into the industry?
Mei Kawajiri: Definitely learn basic nail techniques first. I know many nail artists who can paint, but the shape is wrong, the manicure is bad and not clean. Safety is also important. You need to gain knowledge and practice first, and then you can try anything you think is fun and cool. Be original, watch lots of movies, travel lots, and get inspired by different cultures.
What is the future of beauty?
Mei Kawajiri: I hope not simple beauty! Maybe we can go back to FRUiTS [Harajuku street fashion magazine] again?
What are you currently working on?
Mei Kawajiri: A collaboration with LeSportsac to make my glitter suitcases. Lots of photo shoots, campaign shoots with brands, and a nail show at a gallery.
Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?
Mei Kawajiri: I think everyone! Maybe you!