Purple Magazine
— Purple 25YRS Anniversary issue

Mei Kawajiri

nail artist/ tokyo/ new york

interview by ANNABEL FERNANDES
portrait and photos by MARIE DÉHÉ

 

ANNABEL FERNANDES — You seem to be in Paris every month. Are you here for clients?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I’m in Paris for Balenciaga. I do the nails for their shows and campaigns. Demna [Gvasalia] loves nail art.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — How did you meet Demna?

MEI KAWAJIRI — A mutual friend told him about me. Soon after Demna took over at Balenciaga, they asked me to do the nails for the Women’s Spring 2017 show. Also, I work with Terry Richardson a lot in New York, and I know Terry’s wife Skinny. She’s my regular customer. Skinny told Lotta Volkova, Balenciaga’s stylist, about me, though Lotta and Demna both knew of my work separately. I now do their shows, even for menswear.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — How do you collaborate with a brand like Balenciaga?

MEI KAWAJIRI — It starts with my mood. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes crazy, sometimes with charms. For example, now I’m more interested in glitter and industrial piercings. When I used hoops, Demna asked me if we should do that for the Men’s Fall 2017 show. I tried it, but it looked weird because men’s nails are very short, and Demna didn’t want to use tips on models. Since I’m good at detailed paintings on a miniature scale, he asked me to paint the Balenciaga logo.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — That was the red-white-and-blue imitation of Bernie Sanders’s campaign logo!

MEI KAWAJIRI — Yes! The election one. During the presidential elections, there were a lot of Trump and Clinton designs. Many people wanted to express themselves, so they put Hillary’s face on their nails.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Your miniature paintings on nails distinguish your work from other nail artists. You have a steady hand. Did you learn this in art school?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I never studied art, but I was always drawing. When I was 17, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to go to college. I took up dancing, but quickly realized I had no talent for it. One day, I went to a bookstore and found a nail art book. It looked fun: small canvases and freedom. I went to nail school when I was 18. Afterwards, I started working in a salon.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Were you dreaming of going to New York?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I was working in Kyoto, a very quiet and traditional city. Now I appreciate it, but at the time I was so bored. Nobody wanted any adventurous nails. So I decided to move to Tokyo. I started doing nails in Roppongi, an area that has many strip clubs. The women have to dress a little crazy and have to be well groomed. It was there that I learned how to do crazier nails and how to do them quickly. After that, I moved to Harajuku, where the style was much funkier. I opened my own salon, and I’d work from 9 AM until midnight.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Were you working there alone?

MEI KAWAJIRI — Just me! I like to work alone, but after eight years I got bored. A photographer friend from New York came to visit Tokyo, and after that I really wanted to visit New York. So I went there with crazy nails and brought an album of photos of nails I’d painted over the previous eight years to show people on the street. I held it with three fingers to showcase my crazy nail style.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — What kind of crazy nail style?

MEI KAWAJIRI — My forefinger, middle finger, and thumb were long with a lot of diamonds. My other fingers were bland and short. I walked Fifth Avenue, showing my album to people on the street. I wanted to know how people would react in America. People loved it, so I thought I should move there.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — What year was this?

MEI KAWAJIRI — It was 2010, and I moved in 2012. I waited a while to move, to make sure I got the visa and to say goodbye to all my customers in Tokyo.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — They must have been sad.

MEI KAWAJIRI — People were crying!

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Do your Japanese clients ever visit you in New York?

MEI KAWAJIRI — All the time. People ask me to move back, but I don’t want to. I’m done with Japan. I love America. People are very positive in New York. Every day, something happens. I get excited just to wake up. If you have no energy or dreams, though, it’s a hard place to live.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — What did you do when you got there?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I worked at a salon. I had an artist’s visa, and for that you need a sponsor, which became the salon. I worked there every day for $10 an hour. It wasn’t much money, but I could promote my work to so many customers. I couldn’t speak English at the time, so I put an iPad on my table with a slideshow of my Tokyo nail styles to show them that I could do anything they wanted.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — It must have allowed you to learn English and get to know American culture.

MEI KAWAJIRI — Yes. On July 4th, for example, people asked for American flags or fireworks, so I would ask them why and basically got educated. They also taught me how to say “thumb,” as I would always say “big finger.” After five months, I realized I couldn’t work outside of the salon. Publications like Harper’s Bazaar contacted me to do the nails for shoots. I wanted to, but I had to ask my manager for the day off. Of course they said no. So I missed all these opportunities. Eventually, when I became freelance, those same customers found me through Instagram.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — How did Harper’s Bazaar find you?

MEI KAWAJIRI — My biggest client is Hannah Bronfman. She would always ask me to put song lyrics on her nails, like by Jay Z. Every time I did her nails, she would post it on her Instagram, and after that, people reached out to me.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — I’ve read that you are the most imitated nail artist.

MEI KAWAJIRI — I started putting hoops through long nails about three months ago. Just like back in the ’90s, when Janet Jackson first did it. After I posted it on Instagram, it became a trend. I create trends, too. I did food nail art for the first time because I didn’t know how to say “croissant.” When I moved to New York, I only ate croissants, one every day. I thought I needed to do a croissant on a nail to show the people at the bakery.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — You used nails as a form of language.

MEI KAWAJIRI — Exactly. If people have no skills to learn a language, then they figure out another way to communicate.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — What makes your nail art unique?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I don’t use stencils. I don’t use stickers. I love using my hands, so mine are all hand-painted. My specialty is 3-D nails. I did Marilyn Manson 3-D nails once. I love the photo that Terry took of Marilyn for Paper magazine, the cover, so I molded his face in acrylic. I haven’t been doing this lately because my mood is different. My favorites, though, are my cigarette butt nails in 3-D. I did those for myself.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Does your love life affect your nail art?

MEI KAWAJIRI — I’m dating this artist right now. He’s an abstract artist. When I met him, I liked the abstract style of his drawings, and I started to do nails with a Sharpie instead of nail polish. I realized that I don’t always need to use a brush. When I was dating this skateboarder, I used to put the Thrasher logo on one hand and Spitfire Wheels on the other.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Do you collaborate with a lot of brands?

MEI KAWAJIRI — Now I’m making a new nail polish color with Color Club. They make incredible holographic colors.

ANNABEL FERNANDES — Who would you most like to work with?

MEI KAWAJIRI — Male rappers! I want to do Lil Wayne.

[Table of contents]

Purple 25YRS Anniversary issue

Table of contents

purple NEWS

purple 25 YEARS 25 COVERS

purple INTERVIEW

purple FASHION WOMEN

purple FASHION MEN

purple DOCUMENT

purple BEAUTY

purple ARCHITECTURE

purple LOVE

purple PHILOSOPHY

purple NIGHT

purple STORY

purple SEX

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