Look Inside Chicago’s Nail Art Scene With These Stunning Photographs

by Elissa Sanci

As you scroll through Instagram, it’s not uncommon to come across dramatic, bedazzled nails. The nail art trend, which had been dying down for some time, is making a comeback; intricate, dazzling nails have been spotted in fashion shows, and designers have been incorporating long, glittering manicures into their runway and editorial looks. For some nail techs, however, nail art is more than just a trend — it’s the way they make their living. In Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Sideout next month — Helen Maurene Cooper, a photographer from Chicago, chronicles the lives of the women behind the wildly expressive nails of the Chicago nail art community.

L 07 Gold

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Paint & Polish, which will be released on Feb. 23 by Netherlands-based publisher Onomatopee, centers on portraits of the women behind the African American and Hispanic-run salons on Chicago’s west side, their vibrant nail art prominently on display. Alongside her stunning photos, Cooper includes interviews with five techs who delve into the sociological, economic and aesthetic implications associated with the community.

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Over the course of eight years, Cooper has built relationships with nail techs, salon owners and clients that have allowed her to produce a body of work that explores what it means to be entrenched within the nail art community. These women have gained prominence as social media trendsetters, but aren’t a part of the national nail art conversation, and Cooper is bent on shedding light on their artistic talents.


Paint & Polish features collections of photographs; one series, called Hard Candy, features large-scale images of the meticulously detailed, hand-painted nails, and another, Jazzy Nails, is filled with portraits of the nail techs and their clients, their handiwork on display. Cooper also collaborated with salon owners to create photo-based custom wallpaper for her portraits.

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With her book, Cooper invites beauty lovers to appreciate another side of nail art that is rarely seen and celebrates the women behind the nails. Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Side is available for pre-order now on Onomatopee’s website.

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Photos via Helen Maurene Cooper

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