Yayo was poring over a pair of hands, one of the three to five she tends to any given day at Vanity Projects in Manhattan. With a small pair of scissors she cut and placed a thin foil on each nail, creating boundaries for the polish. Then, with the pad of her index finger and thumb, she held the tiniest of brushes and painted white polish within the lines. The final touch was a fine gold powder that she sprinkled over a clear base and buffed to a shine.
The artist herself wears elaborate eight-inch-long nails covered in crystals and handmade 3-D appliqués. Yayo calls them her “superlong bling-bling nails.” Think Edward Scissorhands, but with diamond-encrusted talons instead of shears. While she works, the clicking of her nails is often the only sound that can be heard.
At Vanity Projects, Yayo adds a chrome finish to the nails of the jewelry designer Jules Kim.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
The way we wear our nails, whether bare or bedazzled, can say a lot about individual style. Practicality and professional provisions are no longer limits to personal expression. Aesthetics have turned nails into elaborate easels.
Those who see Jenny Bui, known as the “Queen of Bling,” in the Bronx tend toward the multidimensional. “Cheap nails aren’t good, and good nails aren’t cheap,” said Ms. Bui, the nail technician who keeps Cardi B rich in acrylic nails. Ms. Bui works out of her Fordham Road salon, Jenny’s Spa, where she creates her signature stiletto nails layered with Swarovski crystals. People travel from as far away as Australia for private sessions with her.
Jenny Bui’s client Jennifer R. gravitates toward the elaborate. “It helps accentuate who I am and makes me feel sexy,” she said, “and it shows I pay attention to details.”CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Cynthia Cervantes shows off a 3-D nail design by the independent nail artist Naomi Yasuda. It features crystals and hand-sculpted acrylic flowers.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Amina, who has been a customer for two years, visits Jenny’s two or three times a month. The “blinged out” acrylic nails Ms. Bui creates for her are striking, with oversize crystals that take up to four hours to arrange and adhere.
“I allow Jenny to do her own thing,” Jennifer R. said of Ms. Bui, the owner of Jenny’s Nail Spa.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Vanity Projects, where Yayo works, is known for its bespoke nails and gallery-like experience. The owner, Rita Pinto, is an art curator who hosts a residency with visiting nail professionals from around the world.
“My personal nail style is reminiscent of my work as a designer,” said Jules Kim, a jewelry designer who is one of Yayo’s clients. “I like to combine the visual simplicity with ingenuity, in either shape or application of a jewel.” She stressed the importance of nails “that never take away from the jewelry pieces I present on my hand.”
“My style has no gender, so I like to pull inspiration and ideas from all different aspects of life,” said Dee Trannybear, a hairstylist. “My motto is: The more colorful your life is, the happier you are.”CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Misleidys Mora adds finishing touches to Gianna Love’s manicure. Ms. Love described her preferred nail style as “dark, vampy, unusual, classic glamour. Always longish with slightly pointed almond tips. Sharp enough to be claws and soft enough to leave love marks.”CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Nearby, at Akiko Nails, Christina F. Richardson watched as Tahsiyn Harley created a design that reflected a traditional Japanese nail art experience. Using the Time’s Up movement, black history and the Santeria religion as inspiration, Ms. Harley drew portraits of women on Ms. Richardson’s accent nails, and painted the others yellow, which represents the Santeria goddess Oshun.
In most cases, the nail design process is a collaboration that merges customer recommendations and artists’ tastes. Naomi Yasuda, an independent nail artist whose Rolodex includes Madonna, Lady Gaga and Kesha, invites her customers to come to appointments with ideas in mind, which she then brings to life.
Inspired by the bold style of Cardi B and Rihanna, Ms. Bui created multicolored nails with Swarovski crystals and jewels dangling from the tips.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
Suzanne E. Shapiro, the author of “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure,” said that the mainstreaming of hip-hop and urban fashion, in tandem with Japanese nail technology, has contributed to contemporary nail art aesthetics.
“Our obsession with mobile devices has also been hugely influential, allowing us to capture the minute detail of nail art and broadcast it to the whole world,” Ms. Shapiro said.
Christina F. Richardson’s manicure at Akiko Salon was inspired by the Time’s Up movement and black history.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
“My nails are important because they are an accessory to my body,” Mengly Hernandez said. “They are a blank canvas that I can decorate as I please.”CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
“I like to combine the visual simplicity with ingenuity in either shape or application of a jewel,” said Ms. Kim, the jewelry designer.CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
“My manicure is the most important part of my style,” Christina Roma said. “If my nails are lacking, no matter how well I dress I feel disheveled. It is the perfect, steadfast accessory.”CreditJeffrey Henson Scales
In the 1970s, nail art was a novelty offered at a limited number of salons, and women of color were often early adopters, opting for styles that were bolder in length and design. The Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner, known as Flo Jo, and the singers Glodean White and Minnie Riperton were known for their long and decorative nail styles. Ms. Riperton would even bring a full-time nail artist on tour with her.
Many of the technological and style innovations have come out of Japan. Gel nail technology, introduced in the United States in the 1980s, dries much faster and lasts longer than standard polish. This technology allowed artists to create more elaborate designs, with stencils, 3-D elements and more.
These complex works have found a natural home on social media, with nail artists and their clients posting often on Instagram and fostering a diverse global community that extends far beyond the streets of New York City. It’s good for business: One can find designs, trends and artists from all over the world with the tap of a manicured fingertip.