Chicago’s latest celebrities are its nail artists

By Madeline Nusser For Sun-Times Media

October 31, 2013 5:24PM

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:48PM

Tacarra Sutton debuted her wares at New York Fashion Week this fall. The models, bright lights, backstage scrutiny — all new and exhilarating. Her runway designs were an edited version of her signature look: geometric, sharp and always pulsing with energy. She fitted 25 models in beige and pink, and sent them gliding down the runway.

Sutton is the rare Chicagoan to make it to the big leagues in fashion. But she’s not a clothing designer. Sutton — who goes by “Spifster” — outfits the fingernails of runway models, magazine editors and A-list celebrities like Jennifer Hudson. She’s what’s called a nail artist or a designer manicurist, one of a new breed of elite fashion workers.

Chicago’s always been known for its nail flair, particularly swirly Korean-influenced styles emerging from storefront manicure parlors and home-run salons. But thanks to image sharing websites like Tumblr and Instagram, some local manicurists have raised their profiles globally by posting pictures for online followers — many of whom jockey for appointments or band together to invite a nail artist to their town.

To put this trend into perspective, Tumblr —where Sutton keeps her nail art blog, spifster.tumblr.com — receives around 20 billion page views a month, and the site names nail art a top-five searched tag. This exposure to the once-underground nail art subculture has created a new pervasive nail style: street-art inspired, colorful, often heavily textured — and the more innovative the better.

Cultivating this aesthetic is Ashley Crowe, known to her fans as Astrowifey. In a contest earlier this year, lifestyle website Refinery 29 and Revlon named her the nation’s best nail artist — the first such award.

“I was up against some pretty awesome competition,” says Crowe, who was flown to New York City and touted by the sponsors as “the Reigning Queen of Nail Art. “

Crowe’s recent works include bold nails covered with stones, twigs and artificial butterflies; Pantone chips — colors demarcated with corresponding numbers; and a delicate pastel ombre lace pattern.

“I love the challenge of doing art on a really tiny canvas,” says Crowe, who — like Sutton — started painting friends’ nails in the late-aughts before widespread attention drove her to nail tech school. Crowe, also a Columbia College graduage, has funneled her success into “Tipsy Zine,” the only print publication in the United States showcasing the new wave of nail art.

Both nail designers occasionally work together, teaming up at music fests such as Lollapalooza or Atlanta’s A3C Hip Hop Festival. They head out to Los Angeles and New York City for appointments, which is where Sutton was asked to collaborate on the runway show for contemporary women’s clothing brand Alice + Olivia.

“Until recently there was no nail art budget for fashion week,” Sutton notes, adding that high nail styles are becoming standard everywhere. “Now you see someone with clusters on her fingernails —like, where you going? Nowhere?” That’s the transition from beauty to art: They don’t do it to look pretty. “They do it because it makes them happy.”

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