Skip to main content

Mei Kawajiri: Instagram’s Most Viral Nail Artist

Kawajiri, who counts Gigi Hadid, Ariana Grande and Demna Gvasalia as clients, talks Japanese nail art and creating viral looks.

There’s no shortage of inspiration inside Mei Kawajiri’s Lower Manhattan studio. On the contrary, the space is overflowing with oddities.

Kawajiri, nail artist to celebrities and designers like Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, Ariana Grande and Demna Gvasalia, is known for her inventive designs that often go viral within Instagram’s nail community. One such concept, which made its rounds on various accounts a couple of years ago, was a set of red nails pierced with an extra set of red nails. Another, dubbed the “boob manicure” last summer, featured 3-D nipples, some of which had piercings. Earlier this year, Kawajiri gave herself hot pink extensions and pierced them with a silver chain of Barbie shoes. She flashed them on her feed to the tune of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”

“I love drama,” Kawajiri said from her studio on a recent evening. She’s a Pisces, she added, which means her emotions are “out of control” and her creativity at “an all-time high.”

Related Galleries

Originally from Kyoto, Japan, Kawajiri has been doing nails for 15 years. She was once an aspiring tattoo artist, but opted for nail art after realizing she changed her mind too quickly to give herself permanent tattoos. She moved to New York six years ago and has accumulated a number of clients. She charges $200 for a manicure and has become so in-demand, she only takes new clients if they come with a referral.

Kawajiri’s studio is small, bright and teeming with cheery, rainbow-colored items. A Longchamp x Jeremy Scott faux-fur travel bag hangs from a knob under her kitchen sink. Feather boas, an array of hats, jewelry, chains, charms, a plastic tiara, an image of Elvis Presley and bejeweled Miu Miu heels that are too big for her hang off of a tall metal rack in the living room. Next to the rack is a set of plastic drawers that supposedly house more than 1,000 nail polishes, and on the wall adjacent to her work station is a sampling of her past designs — red nails on nails set included.

“I’m always fun,” Kawajiri said. “I go see live music, I drive a bicycle, I go out with my friend downtown, midtown and I love drinking. I think I’m drinking every day. Tequila, beer and wine.”

She’s based in New York, but Kawajiri often travels to Tokyo for supplies — gels, brushes, charms — and to be reimmersed in the Japanese nail art scene. The biggest difference between Japanese and American nail art, she said, is that Japanese designs are “more abstract,” whereas her American clients “love to have a theme.”

“Even 10 years ago, [Japan was] doing what we are doing in New York: big stones, crazy charms,” she said. “Young girls save money for their nails instead of eating a lot of food. They wanna be skinny and they wanna have cool nail art.”

She draws inspiration from her personal life, including romantic interests — “if I date a skateboarder, then I wanna do skateboard-themed [nails] because he’s gonna like me more” — and though she used to be bothered by other artists copying her designs, it happens so often she no longer cares.

“As long as I don’t copy or I don’t watch other people’s Instagram, I’m good,” she said. “I don’t watch nail Instagrams at all. If you see [something] one time, you have the idea already on the inside of your head. I don’t wanna be like that. I wanna be always original and new.”

Outside of the nail world, Kawajiri has collaborated with Google on a screen saver and Dominique Ansel on a cake inspired by nail art. With her sizable social media and celebrity followings, it’s not out of the question that she’d open her own salon or launch her own line. Asked whether she’s thought to do either, she said, “I thought this before, but I don’t like to stay in the same place all the time. I love traveling to see new people.”

Her own salon may be out of the question, but she has another idea in mind.

“Maybe I’ll do a nail car,” she said. “Like a taco truck. I should do that.”

She just might be on to something.