For the past seven years Ringling Underground has been bringing a mix of exhibition and live music to Sarasota. This Thursday, March 2nd, Ringling returns with its second Underground of this year, featuring an exhibit in the Ringling Courtyard titled: Action in the Manicure: Works by Nail Pop LLC & Porn Nail$. This exhibit features two regional artists, Rosemarie Romero and Erin Hart.
Romero is the founder of Porn Nail$ Salon, a mobile interactive installation and performance piece that doubles as a queer-feminist nail salon. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Miami, Romero’s art incorporates kitschy Latinx Caribbean themes that interlace with a desire to celebrate diversity, sexuality, and the human connection.
Hart is the founder of Nail Pop, a radical nail art company that focuses on community collaboration and working with local artists to make everything from nail decals, to stylish dust masks for the nail artists themselves. They’ve worked with many independent and local brands, their most recent collaboration being with Care Bears, celebrating the brand’s 35th anniversary.
Nail art has exploded in popularity in recent years. While single-color paint jobs and the ever-classic French Tip manicure never really went out of style; bold, bright, and blingy nails of the 80’s and 90’s, primarily birthed out of communities of color seemed to be on their way out in the 2000’s in favor of a more natural style. However, celebrities, and the rise of social media in the past five years have changed all that. Platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Youtube have allowed artists to share their work, while sites like Etsy and Kickstarter create spaces for new artists to sell their products and raise money for projects. Suddenly nail art that might have once been considered crazy, or even tacky, is everywhere and for everyone.
Leading up to Action in the Manicure, we sat down with both artists to hear more about the exhibit, their background in nail art, and what this art form- once relegated to the shadows and mystery of the salon- mean to them.
What first got you interested in nail art?
Rose: When I was doing my MFA in Creative Photography at UF (University of Florida) I was doing a lot of collages and paintings that focused on the female nude and femininity. So that sort of technical overlapping and focus on femininity led me to start doing simple nail art designs, very basic stuff. But I found that there was something really intimate and connective about doing nails and the space that is created in a salon between the artist and clients and I decided I really wanted to pursue it.
Erin: I’ve drawn and painted ever since I was little, so I’ve always drawn on everything, including my nails. I’d do them for different holidays and sometimes my mom would pay me to paint hers, too. In 2006, I went to school and got licensed to do nails as a full specialist. I didn’t start really developing my nail art until after I had heart surgery in 2010. I needed an outlet and I needed my friends while I recovered, so I’d invite them over and paint their nails.
Both of you started out with mobile salons, and Rose the mobility of your salon is central to your project. What appeals to you about the idea of a mobile salon?
E: I’m still primarily mobile, but I spend more and more time in my studio experimenting and doing editorial work. I started out working in stick and mortar salons/spas, but I really like having control over my schedule and clients by having a mobile salon.
R: Porn Nail$ is inherently an interventionist project. Part of the idea of it is to invade space and bring the experience and intimacy of being in a salon to people who might not ever walk into one. But it’s definitely a guilty pleasure of mine to think about having a stick and mortar salon. If it ever were to be, I’d love it to be a multi-purpose community space for performance, shows, stuff like that.
Speaking of intimacy Rose, you speak about Porn Nail$ and salons in general being a space where juicy gossip and intimacy emerge over the encounter. Erin, you talk a lot about building community in your work. How do you feel nail art can build intimacy and bring people together?
R: I feel like salons, and in the same way barbershops are a space where people come to share their personal stories and engage in cultural exchange. There is an intimate connection that happens in salons when you are working on someone and they are sharing with you about their lives. And I feel like salons in particular are places where historically women have and still do feel free to engage in conversations that are more raunchy, more free, more sexually explicit and to just, make jokes and have a good time. That’s part of what I’m trying to do with Porn Nail$, to make people feel more comfortable with their sexuality and sex in general.
E: Rose is definitely right about nail salons being a place for guests and artists to experience a closeness that I’ve never experienced doing other services. You’re face to face the entire time, holding their hands and taking care of them. Receiving a nail service can be a very disarming experience, so it’s important to be a good listener. Most of my clients are other artists that I collaborate with in the community here in Tampa. Anytime I find a local artist I like, I’ll offer them work designing decals. I think giving people work and a platform to express themselves is a great way to build community.
How do you see nail art empowering others? What empowers you as the artist about nail art?
R: With Porn Nail$ I feel like so many people have been able to experience this intimate salon setting. Porn Nail$ has been a way to bring people together and show them this [nail art] is for everyone. I’ve had boys come with their fathers to get their nails done, men who have never had their hands touched like this or nails done who were willing to come in and explore something and felt safe to express that with me. Because of the mobility and pop-up nature of the salon, it turns something that is hidden away into something with no walls and no barriers; it demystifies the salon experience. People come and feel like they can play with gender, play with the signifiers, and express themselves in a way they might not feel comfortable elsewhere.
E: For me, nail art allows me to be self employed, I get to choose my hours and my clients, there aren’t many jobs where you get to maintain that kind of control while still being creative and making money. I’m very lucky to be doing this for a living.
Both of you describe your projects as feminist. How do you see nail art as a feminist expression?
E: It’s probably one of the most diverse industries and we’re all here to make a living with our art. Giving that sort of autonomy and agency to people is feminist to me.
R: Outside from what I’ve said before about the salon being a place where people feel free to open up and express themselves, there’s this expression in Miami called Chusmeira, which basically means like radical shamelessness. And it’s this word that’s used when women sort of break traditional gender roles and norms of how they should behave and present themselves. It’s used a lot in the Latinx Caribbean community when, for example, a woman dresses too flamboyantly or acts a certain way. So it’s something that is put onto women from outside them and something stigmatized and with nail art and the space that’s created for women in a salon to express themselves however they’d like…it’s not quite an inversion of the word, but pushing these boundaries is something I keep in mind.
What’s your favorite kind of nail art to do?
R: I am all about glitter and rhinestones. I love sparkle, give it to me! I also like doing more eccentric stuff, nail piercings, things like that. And I really love using this Latinx concept in my work called “Mal de Ojo” and basically it’s like when someone looks at you with jealousy or like maliciousness and so to ward off this evil people wear eye designs called “nazars” and I love using these eye designs in my work.
E: Anything extremely intricate or ornate, the kind of nails few people have the patience to sit for!
Can you describe a little bit of what we can expect from the exhibit at Ringling Underground?
E: This year I’m collaborating with Care Bears, so you’ll see them included throughout the pieces. Each set of nails displayed is it’s own tiny universe to explore. Rose and I will be offering nail art manicures to the guests on a first come first serve basis. It’s going to be really cool.
R: As Erin said, we’ll both be doing nails in the courtyard, first come, first serve. We’ll also both be doing custom nail sets that will be on display and mine will definitely be playing off of the architecture of the building itself. I’ll also be bringing my Porn Nail$ aesthetic with me, rose garlands and Rococo objects decorating the courtyard.
Thanks so much for talking to us! We can’t wait to see the show!
E: Thank you so much!
Ringling Underground will be held this Thursday, March 2nd at 8:30PM. For more information visit their website: https://www.ringling.org/events/ringling-underground.
Interview conducted and written by Ashley Phelps