Mei Kawajiri: Tiny Canvases

An artist who reimagined Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Self-Portrait’ series in polish and gel describes her process

@nailsbymei #LouiseBourgeois for @hunterschafer 🕷🕷🕷💙❤️. Photo courtesy Mei Kawajiri

  • Apr 29, 2021

Born in Kyoto, nail artist Mei Kawajiri has made a name for herself through her intricate creations on the fingertips of major figures in the worlds of fashion and entertainment, numbering Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, Dua Lipa and others among her clients. Kawajiri spoke to ‘Ursula’ magazine recently about the tricky job of recreating Louise Bourgeois' spidery, biomorphic forms at fingernail scale for an art-loving patron.

‘I keep pushing the limits for what is possible to achieve with nails as a canvas.’ Photo courtesy Mei Kawajiri

How did you get into nail art?
I have always loved drawing, since I was little, and I knew that I wanted to be some type of artist. I chose nails as the canvas for my art because I felt having art as a part of the body is very special and precious. Nails not being permanent meant that I could change design whenever I wanted. It was perfect for me. Nail art is such a small canvas, but there are still many ways of expression.

How did you come to know Louise Bourgeois’ work specifically? What compelled you to re-interpret fine art and incorporate it into your own practice?
One of my favorite clients, Hunter Schafer, requested Louis Bourgeois inspired nails. Immediately, I was excited for the challenge and loved Louise’s specific style. It’s hard to explain, but as an artist, sometimes when I see a work of art, I will know how to recreate it with nail products. There are similar techniques to recreate the original effect, and if I don’t know right away, it’s a fun process to figure it out.

Who are some other artists whose work you admire?
I really admire anime and especially like the work of Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli.

Photo courtesy Mei Kawajiri and Hunter Schafer

Kawajiri’s reference images from Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Self-Portrait’ series © The Easton Foundation

How did you manage to paint Louise’s work onto a canvas as small as a human nail? What was the process like?
I used a technique that’s similar to painting with watercolors, using clear gel. I mixed several colors and a tiny bit of clear gel. This set took several hours, as there was so much brush work combined with very delicate lines. The nails lasted about 3 weeks!

Do you think you'll continue exploring the art world or other unusual sources for nail creations?
I keep pushing the limits for what is possible to achieve with nails as a canvas. My specialty is 3D hand-sculpted nails using acrylic formulas, which can take hours. Lately, I've been experimenting with my anime drawing style on large format canvases. The work is inspired by my own fantasy anime character, whom I’ve started to refer to as Ani-Mei. She has crazy long nails like me, and her nails have different meanings and powers in each work of art. – Follow @nailsbymei on Instagram to see more of her work.