When I first met Nathan Taylor, I was sitting in the crowd at Sweet Squared’s The Event in Birmingham when the iconic Jan Arnold, CND co-founder, pulled him up onto the stage to recognise his outstanding work and creativity.
While Taylor (he/they) had stood out to me as one of the few fellow people of colour in the room, I didn’t know he was a nail tech I had been obsessed with from afar until Arnold, who has become a friend, cheerleader and collaborator to Taylor, put some examples of his work on the big screen.
I gasped as soon as I saw it, not only because it was incredible work, but because I recognised it and had been heavily inspired by it as a nail tech myself. Thanks to his unlimited creativity and skill, Taylor now gets to create content for brands that are looking to show the boundaries that can be pushed with their product.
Taylor’s work takes inspiration from everywhere. Sometimes you see industrial influences turned into outrageous 3D forms, other times influences taken from nature transform into beautiful and occasionally grotesque miniature masterpieces, making his work perfect for many of the crazy competition categories he’s competed in.
The artist and their medium
Taylor is certainly not your everyday nail tech, in fact, despite his incredible ability and roster of dedicated clients, he wouldn’t consider himself a nail tech at all. Rather, he is an artist, and right now nails are his chosen medium.
“Working as an artist is really hard; it’s really hard to make money,” he says. “Usually, you are in a studio making work by yourself. It’s not very interactive. As a nail artist, I get to meet really cool people. That interaction, that connection you have with your clients, is the main thing that attracts me to being a nail artist. And also, I love working really small.”
Taylor recalls that, when at university, he was always told to work bigger and given the impression that to be an artist you had to create in a similar way to the people whose work has typically filled the walls of famous galleries. Despite this, he has gone on to have his work displayed in spaces like The Design Museum and has been interviewed by ITV News.
“Even though I work tiny, there are still elements of performance and sculpture in my nails,” he adds. “It’s always really hard to think about the kind of artist I am, but for me, it doesn’t matter. It’s more about communicating something. I find it truly cathartic, and I’ve used it as a tool for my mental health for a very long time.”
As one of the many nail techs with ADHD, myself included, Taylor finds that all the projects or ideas he has spinning can be a real struggle to prioritise and finish, especially with perfectionism at play. With nails, however, you have limited time to complete the task before you have to say “enough” and let it go.
“When you are with a client, for their sake, you have to get the art done before your nails go out into the world. You can’t go back and change bits. Once it’s time up, they’ve gone. I love that they only live for a certain amount of time – it’s temporary. Hopefully, that person will not pick them off, but will come back to have them removed and we can start the process again. I love that they have a shelf life.”
As an artist, nails give the opportunity for both you and the client to reinvent yourselves based on mood, life events and inspiration. “I am a big TV and movie person, I watch a lot of weird cinema and often I’ll pause the TV on a weird pattern in the background, or something most people probably wouldn’t notice,” says Taylor. “I am totally in love with Björk and get a lot of inspiration from everything she does and from fashion also. Fashion interacts with the wearer’s body and those around them and I feel like nails are the same.”
As an artist, this is something Taylor is starting to think about a lot – especially with his more conceptual and 3D work – how can his nails make others feel and what emotions can they evoke?
“I don’t think we realise how much we express with our hands. A big part of body language plays out with our hands, so having that extension of personality and expression is really interesting,” he says.
2018 Taylor completes his NVQ Level 2 in nail services, landing his first nail job later that year
2019 Opens his home nail studio in April then releases his own BBB Cuticle Oil and Scrub in May
2020 Taylor is interviewed on ITV News
2023 Launches Your Hands to support underprivileged nail techs and is shortlisted for The World’s Star Nail Artist award
Art for exposure
In the summer of 2020, and following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality, Taylor began to speak out and raise awareness of inclusion and diversity within the nail industry.
As a queer creative of colour in this age, navigating the world of brand collaborations has become a particular pain point for Taylor with questions like “why is inclusion and diversity important?” being put to him. “To that I often answer, ‘why the hell isnt it?’,” he says.
In the run up to Pride month this summer, Taylor was inundated with partnership requests. “I almost dread that time of year now,” he says, adding that he needs to be more careful about accepting requests for emotional labour now that he knows he’s dealing with myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
“The meaning of Pride has changed for me,” he adds. “Now, it means work – working to make brands and companies hear and recognise the value in inclusivity and diversity and what I do. It’s tokenistic because I’m available to do this work all year round – not just during an allocated month.
“It’s almost a guarantee that I will get that email or call asking me to do this work for free, for cheap or for ‘exposure’ or on totally someone else’s terms, which has become a big no-no for me. I need to at least be met halfway and it has to fit with what I’m about.”
After being burned in the past, when these sorts of opportunities come up Taylor has learned to properly assess them to ensure they align with his beliefs and go beyond the performative nature of some of the requests that can come in during this increasingly commercialised time of year. However, as a self-described “agitator” in the space, Taylor never looks to call brands out in conversations, but rather to “call them in”.
It’s this kind of awareness and protective mentality that Taylor brings to his mentees with his fully funded initiative “In Your Hands”, specifically for marginalised nail artists.
Since Taylor’s chronic illness has progressed, he has had to hold off from taking on new clients and has switched his focus to helping other nail techs grow after receiving many requests for advice from underrepresented nail enthusiasts.
The In Your Hands (IYH) scholarship programme aims to provide marginalised people in the UK with resources such as workshops, mentoring and networking opportunities to start their own nail business, while removing financial barriers by providing support with things like set-up costs, equipment, and training.
The programme aims to support up to five mentees annually, and Taylor hopes to grow IYH to mentor as many marginalised nail enthusiasts as possible.
On successful completion, the trainees will not only qualify as nail technicians, but leave with professional contacts, an education in financial management, business insight and more.
It is this kind of community that Taylor says is imperative to safeguard against some of the pitfalls he has come across during his own career, especially when being asked to provide any kind of physical or emotional labour to prove a brand or company’s progressiveness when it comes to diversity.
When working with brands, there are a few things that Taylor drums into his mentees. “First and foremost is to keep your receipts. Make sure you have a trail of everything on email or in writing so you can refer back to it,” he says.
Secondly, more often than not, brands will ask nail techs to adhere to a contract or agreement. Taylor says that it’s important for creators to have the same security.
“Especially if you are working with a brand long term this means that if anything occurs outside of your comfort zone you have more of a leg to stand on.”
Last but not least, Taylor emphasises the importance of having a community of like-minded creators. “These people don’t need to be exactly like you but have similar experiences. You need supportive friends to celebrate you but also provide critique when its needed. This kind of community is really what has got me through the past five years of being a nail tech,” he says.