Nail artist Mei Kawajiri’s nails are her canvasses, statement pieces, and sources of joy. Now they’re also potential sources of infection, not compliant with the daily restraints a pandemic introduces. But she’s found a workaround: nail gloves.

Inspired by drag queens, Kawajiri stuck fake nails to surgical gloves ordered from Amazon, letting her flaunt her nails while staying protected. She posted her creation on Instagram with the hashtag #staycleanstaycute, which is now turning into a rallying point for other nail artists and fans to post their nail gloves, too.

“I just feel like losing those fashion or cute moments makes me really sad,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like myself because fashion makes me a little happy in my normal life.”

The coronavirus outbreak has been derailing Kawajiri’s work. Not only has she canceled appointments with clients because of safety concerns, but she’s also had to cover her hands with gloves when leaving the house, hiding her nails.

Technically, she can keep doing her nails while social distancing herself, but no one in public will see them, and even she won’t be able to look down and enjoy them while out at the grocery store. That’s what prompted her to try decorating the gloves.

Instead of the intricate nail art she usually makes, Kawajiri’s first gloved creation was something simple. She stuck a press-on nail onto her glove and painted it with a lighter purple gel polish, making it more like a nude color on a human hand.

“I do so many nail arts for 17 years and that was the biggest post,” she says. “It’s crazy. It’s not even nail art.” (The original post now has over 42,000 likes.)

She says different generations of people, including people who seemingly don’t get their nails done regularly, loved the nail glove. They commented, messaged her, and told her it was “genius.”

“It’s not about design or nail art, it’s more like the idea and timing and bringing some fun stuff to a dark moment,” she says.

Now, other nail artists are joining in, too. Belén Flores Núñez, a nail artist based in Spain, made her own nail glove, building off Kawajiri’s work. She’s been practicing social distancing and canceled all her appointments because of the Spanish government’s restrictions on daily life. She says she’ll have no income for at least 15 days, and she’s been spending her time alone organizing her nail supplies. The nail glove and its hashtag spoke to her, so she figured she’d make her own.

“I believe Mei’s hashtag says everything for a nail artist — that you need be clean and cute — it’s perfect, and at least for me, it defines me very well,” she says in Spanish. “In this moment of coronavirus, and in general, we have to always take precautions with our clients. The use of gloves is something normal for us, but coronavirus has made it more visible, and I see [my nail glove] as a a very aesthetic way to make it more visible.”

Núñez previously made her own nail glove, except in her version, she let her long nails pierce through the end of the glove, showing off their color.

Image: Belén Flores Núñez

A Germany-based nail artist Vi Nguyen, who also made a nail glove, says she did so to motivate people to keep on with their lives while staying safe. Nguyen opened a nail salon two weeks ago, before the COVID-19 restrictions were enacted globally.

“You can get your nails done, go to the hairdresser, make your purchases. Your daily life goes on,” she says over Instagram DM. “With this picture, I want to motivate people who works in the same business. It will be a hard period of time, but don‘t give up.”

Drag queens have used nail gloves for years — not to keep themselves infection-free, but to more conveniently put on nails and create a persona. Nail glove tutorials are available on YouTube and the gloves themselves are for sale on Etsy. They use more fashionable gloves, not surgical ones.

Other nail artists also seem to be reckoning with the idea of styling their nails amid a pandemic. A Russian nail salon, Nail Sunny, built an entire nail art set, on actual nails, around hand hygiene.

Kawajiri also constructed a 3D roll of toilet paper that now sticks to her nail glove, and yesterday, she posted nails that look like they’re covered in soap suds.

COVID-19 is keeping clients away from their nail artists, closing salons, and requiring people to work remotely. But it can’t stop nail artists from creating and expressing, even if it’s only for themselves and their Instagram followers.

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