‘One minute we’re talking glitter, the next reproductive rights’: the rise of nail bar activism

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Salons such as Tropical Popical, Nail Transphobia and WAH Nails are using their female-only spaces to raise awareness of issues such as domestic violence and to help young businesswomen in the trade

Socially conscious nail art





Socially conscious nail art.
Photograph: Tropical Popical

‘One minute we’re talking glitter, the next reproductive rights’: the rise of nail bar activism


Salons such as Tropical Popical, Nail Transphobia and WAH Nails are using their female-only spaces to raise awareness of issues such as domestic violence and to help young businesswomen in the trade

Nail bars may not generally be considered a hub of political activism but, at Tropical Popical in Dublin, a wave of socially conscious beauty is spreading. “One minute we’re talking about pink glitter, the next we’re discussing women’s reproductive rights,” says its founder, Andrea Horan. A cursory glance at the salon’s Instagram feed illustrates her point. Nails emblazoned with vulvas and hot-pink 8s in a nod to Repeal the 8th, the campaign to end Ireland’s abortion ban, feature alongside more straightforward designs of pineapples and polka dots.

Tropical Popical’s Repeal the 8th design

Tropical Popical’s Repeal the 8th design. Photograph: Tropical Popical

Tropical Popical wasn’t conceived as a feminist salon, but its politics became more pronounced when Horan began using it to promote the work of her Repeal-focused women’s platform, the HunReal Issues. Vagina-decorated nails are part of a bid to normalise conversations about abortion; in the week leading up to Dublin’s March for Choice in September, the salon was packed with women requesting manicures to match the message of the march. The salon is also one way to engage those not interested in current affairs. In the run-up to Ireland’s general election last February, Horan asked staff how they were voting. “A lot of them were just, like, ‘I don’t know – whatever my mam and dad are voting,’ or, ‘I don’t really vote,’” she says. “I suddenly snapped and thought: ‘There is this big army of women who work in beauty and if they were mobilised, there would be a lot more women’s voices calling for women’s issues to be prioritised.”

Tropical Popical isn’t alone in mixing politics with nail polish. In the UK, activist Charlie Craggs educates people about her experience of life as a transgender woman through a pop-up salon, Nail Transphobia, while nail-art sensations WAH Nails, in east London, have set up workshops to help young businesswomen in the trade. In the US, New York-based manicurist Ami Vega creates “socially conscious” nails, highlighting ideas around Black Lives Matter and domestic violence. Charity-run salons providing training for disadvantaged women are also becoming popular. In London, Art Against Knives runs two-weekly community nail bars, both staffed by young women living on estates in Barnet. They offer business skills, mentoring and help with CVs – along with housing domestic violence services. The Shine Nail Bar in Leeds also provides volunteering and employment opportunities.

A nail designs at Nail Transphobia


A design at Nail Transphobia. Photograph: Charlie Craggs

Still, is it not problematic to marry beauty – and the rigid ideals with which it is associated – with women’s rights? Not so, says Horan: “You can celebrate femininity without going against the principles of feminism.” The fact that nail bars are largely women-only spaces makes them a good base for starting tricky conversations, she says. WAH Nails’ founder Sharmadean Reid believes the “youth club” feel of salons also boosts their campaign-ready credentials, pointing out that a manicure is one of the only beauty treatments that allows easy chatter: “You can’t have a conversation if your hair is being blow-dried because it’s too noisy; you can’t have a conversation in a facial.”

WAH Nails has also set up business workshops for women


WAH Nails has also set up business workshops for women. Photograph: Wah Nails

Conversation starters.


Conversation starters. Photograph: Wah Nails

Nail bars have also shed their reputation for being a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. Indeed, they thrived in the last economic downturn, providing an update on the adage that lipstick sales go up when recessions set in. Then there’s the closeness they foster: “You’re holding someone’s hand for an hour so it gives you the opportunity to build up intimacy really fast,” says Horan. The visual impact of nail art is also important – it can embolden the wearer, spark debate and engender a sense of community. But does this hold true when it comes to the nail industry’s unethical reputation? You don’t need to do more than skim the headlines intermittently to associate the sector, in Britain and the US at least, with stories about exploitation and human trafficking – mainly of women. In September, a report by the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, voiced concern about the trafficking of enslaved people from Vietnam to work in the nail bar industry, calling for tighter regulation. There is no data on the number of salons run in this way, but, according to Mark Breadon from the Association of Nail Technicians, the body is collaborating with the Home Office to introduce licensing to eliminate corruption of this kind. However, progress is slow due to lack of consensus between councils, as well as feeble support from Westminster. “Unfortunately, no politician is willing to take it on board because it’s not a big vote winner,” he says.

Given that disheartening reality, the notion of nail bars being a hotbed of women’s activism may seem unconvincing. Yet, returning to Andrea Horan at Tropical Popical, that perspective “tars a whole industry … with one very general brush”. Perhaps a fair way of putting it, then, is that, while the sector needs a clean-up, there are plenty of reputable nail bars – and as a concept they are well-placed, perhaps uniquely so, to have a positive impact on women’s lives.

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