Every time you show someone Mei Kawajiri's Instagram account, it's always met with an ebullient "Wow!", followed by an enthusiastic demand to scroll through her vibrant and magnetic page—naturally, there's always a lot of zooming actions.
Since moving stateside from Harajuku ten years ago, the nail artist and her Instagram handle, aptly named @nailsbymei, have taken over Manhattan and the fashion world by storm. But like many other New York success stories, what might seem like an overnight sensation was the result of years of enduring hard work. Mei confessed that during fashion weeks, all-nighters are a casual occurrence: she and her assistants would be working on over 1,000 nail designs for various shows.
Dialing in from her Manhattan studio, the Kyoto-born artist shared with us what made her decide to move to the Big Apple, her enduring love for this city which she now calls home, how her ongoing collaborations with Demna Gvalasia and Marc Jacobs started, and her advice for young creatives on how to be original.
This interview took place over the phone between Duc Dinh in San Francisco and Mei Kawajiri in New York.
This Generation Presents: Mei Kawajiri | Directed by Jordan Shelwood
DD: How did you get to where you are today?
MK: When I was little, I was not really into studying mathematics, language, or anything like that. I didn't love to socialize with people back then, so I was always drawing these small paintings all the time—and I really believed that I could draw anything if I saw it.
I never went to art school but I've always been interested in an art career. When I was finishing school, I was thinking that I should do art on the body—either a tattoo or nail artist—because it's very unique and special in a way that you’d see people wearing your art, and that also means your art is going to be seen by more people.
One day, when I was eighteen years old, I went to a magazine store, and I found this nail magazine. When I saw it, I thought, “Wow, there are so many more possibilities for the designs.” They only had leopard or zebra prints, and I knew I could do more interesting nail designs than that —that's when I decided to be a nail artist.
Did you go to any school or had any training to do nails, and have you always done such crazy and beautiful designs?
I went to a school in Osaka to learn how to do nails. Before nail school, I had never been to a nail salon before, but when I got there, my brain switched on. I was so interested in doing nails. I would arrive at the school two hours before the teacher or anyone else and use every single product to make a lot of nail arts.
In high school, I would always paint my nails blue, but I remember during nail school, my creations at the time were already crazy.
What did you do after that?
I moved to Tokyo to work at a salon and then I opened my own place in Harajuku. I was doing that for six or seven years.
Tell me about your journey from Japan to New York, what made you decide to move?
I was working in Harajuku at the time and a friend, who’s a photographer from New York, was visiting Japan. He came to my salon, saw my work, and said, "Oh my god, you have to come to New York, and you need to collaborate with makeup artists, hairstylists, and work more in fashion.”
I had never been to the U.S. then, and up to that point, I never thought about it like that. In Japan back then, there were no nail artists on photoshoots. Normally, models would get nails done before the shoot separately.
Then, I decided to come visit New York to see how people would react to my nail art. I printed out all my work and made a little portfolio book. I also had crazy nails on my hands so when I was holding the book, people would see it. I walked from the Lower East Side to Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue, and people would stop me on the street. They’d ask where I had my nails done, if I could do it for them, and that I should move to New York.
I came back and applied for an artist visa to move. I’ve been here for nine years now.
Wow, I really love this story. What made you choose New York City as a permanent home? What do you love about it?
I get bored so quickly, I cannot stay quiet or calm. My mood goes up and down all the time, and I think New York is very similar to me. When I'm happy, New York is so happy. When I'm in a bad mood, then New York also seems sad. It's hard living here, but that makes people tougher, stronger, and more real.
To be an artist and keep fueling your passion and keep creating is not easy, but I can do it in New York because when I get such good energy from the people here, especially the creatives who come here from all over the world like me. New York is very special to me, that's why I have to be here.
You’ve done so much since you moved here nine years ago. One of your first big projects was doing nails for Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga. How did that come about?
Demna and I know each other through a lot of common friends and people I’ve done nails for. Lotta [Volkova], Demna's stylist for Balenciaga, came to me to get some special nails done for herself. She was impressed with my work, so she brought the idea to Demna that they should have nails for the [Spring/Summer 2017] show they were working on.
At first, I thought that Paris or Europe had a more classic, old-school culture; I was wondering if they would like my kind of nail arts, then I found out that everyone loves it. I'm very happy that Demna found me and let me work with them for the show.
It's funny because every time I go to Paris, of course, I do nails for the show, but all the people at the office, including Demna, always ask me to do nails for them too. I think they just want me to be there to do nails for people and also have a good time creating art.
You've also done Marc Jacobs and many other brands. What does your creative process look like? Do they come with you with a mood board first?
Normally for the show and campaigns, I don't know anything before I meet them at the office. I just prepare and guess what they want, whether it’s long nails or something else. Then, we meet and talk about the concept, clothing, hair, and makeup—the overall mood. Usually, I’d ask the designers if they have any specific things they want for the nail art.
Nail is such a specific thing. Unlike makeup or hair, it's a very new thing, so the designers I work with often want me to do something special, not just one color. However, each designer has a different style.
What was it like collaborating with Marc Jacobs on his shows or campaigns?
Marc has such an amazing, imaginative world for fashion, and he's very particular about nails. When I went to his office, they already had a lot of inspirational pictures from my Instagram that he pinned up. He’d suggest changing a certain color or making a new print.
For the show, there were lots of models, and each individual design is super specific and detailed—but that’s his vision, and I tried my best to honor it. After our conversation, I’d start prepping with my assistants—I’d have from six to eight assistants come to my studio and do all the designs.
They’d ask me to come back to the office to check in and I’d bring all the nails we had finished, and he’d suggest some changes. That was Marc's process; it’s very collaborative.
With other designers, normally I’d speak with them about ideas. Then, I’d go back to the studio to make around 1000 nails overnight with my assistants—we don't sleep at all during fashion weeks.
You have your own atelier before the show. Can you tell me a little bit more about your team?
I have a lot of assistants, not only in New York but also in London and Paris. In New York, everyone usually works at their salons, so sometimes it's very hard to manage the timing.
For the shows I do, they always expect me to do crazy nail designs, so my assistants know and are always ready for that. They're always excited about doing it together. It's very hard to keep working 10 hours straight with laser focus and doing crazy nails all the time, but my assistants are always enjoying doing them. After every project, we’re always so happy and satisfied.
I think my team is pretty strong because I focus on teambuilding. It's more than just hiring them for the work and asking them to do it from nine to five. We have a group chat together, and I always check on their lives, make sure everyone's happy. We're like a family, like Ocean's 11 [laughs]!
At the end of the day, to be able to work so hard as a team, we have to care about each other.
Totally, you spend so much time with them—more than most people in your life, really—it's important to know and care for each other.
How do you find your assistants? Do they reach out to you?
I'm actually not really good at finding people. It's usually through word of mouth, my [existing] assistants would help recommend people they know to me because they know my style and how I work.
What kind of characteristics do you look for in an assistant?
A perfect assistant, for me, is someone who is focused and most importantly, funny.
It's not hard to find someone with a really good technique—some are good at painting, some are good at doing super detailed rhinestones. But when we are tired, getting so emotional and a little bit stressed out, it's important to have people who have a sense of humor to make us happy and stay positive.
Speaking of positivity, I always get so happy watching your Instagram stories. How are you able to stay positive, especially during this last year? What do you do to recharge?
I don’t really post any sad things because I know that can affect people. I do have bad days. When I am in a bad mood, I let myself be just that. Sometimes, I have to talk to my friends on the phone for hours or play music and dance away. Other times, I'd do yoga to keep myself calm.
Before the pandemic, we can just do whatever we want [to get out of the funk], but now, we have to be super patient [with our feelings], and it's hard to control. But luckily, I have really good friends, both in New York and Japan. Sometimes, we have to cry away; sometimes, we have to drink—we just have to do it, within healthy boundaries, of course.
Can you walk us through an average day at work for you?
I wake up early, around 6:30-7 AM. I have my morning coffee, do 30 minutes of yoga or running when it’s nice out.
After that, I start working on future photoshoots or attending Zoom meetings. Sometimes, I'd have clients come to my studio to do nails or I’d come to their place. Each customer has a two-hour session. I usually take a small break between clients and then do another person. Sometimes, I just walk around to help relax my mind a bit.
Some days, I finish work around 9–10 PM. If I finish earlier, I'd watch anime, do some cooking, and make some cocktails. Recently, I got into drawing anime, so after dinner, I'd go to my desk upstairs and do some anime paintings.
What are some of your favorite anime series?
My favorites are Neon Genesis Evangelion, Perfect Blue, and anything from Studio Ghibli. I also love any anime coming out of Japan during the 1980s–1990s.
How are you able to keep yourself inspired to continue to create such unique and spectacular designs?
I think watching anime always inspires me. I also love fashion. When I put on an outfit, I'd think about what kind of nails would go well with it.
I find inspiration from everywhere, especially with all the different shapes. It's also helpful that I always play with my own nails—thinking how I can do new, different designs.
What are the must-haves and your favorite products in your kit?
I'd say the Japanese and Korean gel nail polish I use. I love them and have over 1000 color variations. They're extremely high-quality and the companies are always coming out with new formulas and effects—like this magnetic cat-eye one I used.
Do you usually have a sketchbook for your ideas and designs?
It’s all in my head. I start from scratch every time, that's why sometimes when someone asks me to replicate a design, I don't even remember exactly how I did it.
What would you say is your signature style?
My style, I would say, is dynamic, but very detailed. I am very meticulous about nail art.
It is also very specific that they always have a “‘kawaii” element, even if I do a more punk rock style, it still has that touch of me that is a little bit cute. For example, if I did black nails, it'd somehow not seem too weird or scary. It's also the colors I choose as well.
What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on so far?
I did a nail sticker collaboration with ManiMe, which was very exciting because I had never made any product before. I can't do everyone's nails in America, but people can still buy these stickers and experience part of my work.
Another one is the Balenciaga campaign I did for them during the pandemic. We've done many fun projects together, but that was very cool to see myself in an ad campaign.
Recently, I did a photoshoot [for A Community Project] to show support for the Asian community with a lot of Asian women creatives—stylists, photographers, dancers, makeup artists...I did some crazy nail designs for that.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to be nail artists or emerging artists in general?
I think they should be themselves and do what they believe in. When I first started in New York, someone told me, “If you're doing the same thing you did in Japan in New York, it's not going to be a success.” But no one knows what will happen in the future.
If you want to be an artist, you just have to believe in what you do and what you think is cool. If you can imagine what you want to create, it's going to work. If not, it's going to be a failure. It's similar to nail arts, when I think about the idea, if I can imagine the final look, I always make such good products. If I doubt what it will look like, I usually don't like it in the end.
You always say, “Be original!” Do you have any tips for people to keep themselves creative?
I normally don't look at other nail artists' work. If you want to create something original, the idea should start from scratch. I try to look more at different mediums. Even with Pinterest or Instagram, I’d look at paintings, fashion photography, furniture, or sculptures—things that are not directly related to my art. Work experience is also very important for creativity, as well as paying attention to what's going on in the world because all of it informs art.
What do you like the most about the industry that you're in right now?
I’m happy that nails are getting more recognition. When I started doing this, they never tagged nail artists on social media or mentioned us in credits. For photoshoots, there was no table for nails on set—but they’d have one for hair, one for makeup. I’d always say, “I’d appreciate it if next time, you’d have a table for me,” or “If you tagged me, that'd be great, because I was there.”
Those things are getting changed for the better. Now I don't need to ask them to tag me anymore. And there are tables—well, sometimes there are still no tables. But I think as an industry, I'm so much happier than before.
What are you looking forward to this year specifically? Are you opening a salon soon?
I'm not sure when I’d open a salon but if I did, I'd want to do something like Dolly Parton's Dollywood—a fun world to visit. That'd be very cute.
This year, I'm excited about building my brand into something stronger. I never had any logo or anything before, and I didn't have a studio. Now I have my studio, my neon logo behind me, and also my anime drawings. I want to make more products—some sticker or something that'd make a statement.
An audial expedition into Mei's creative universe:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Mei Kawajiri
Special thanks to Polaroid