Ami Vega had her first brush with nail art in middle school. She and a friend would experiment with different polish colors on their hands. It wasn't until high school that the Dominican American teen graduated to more elaborate ways of nail décor.
That's when crackle polish happened.
Vega remembers rocking a baby blue color with a black crackle coat on top. "A girl at Staples yanked my hand and said 'Lemme see your nails! What is that!?' Vega recalls with a smile. "That's when it started… I thought, 'oh you could do something different with your nails.'"
More than a decade has passed since then, and Vega is now 29 and the co-founder of El Salonsito, a NYC-based traveling nail art service. The nail artist travels anywhere in the tri-state area to bring her services to clients at their homes. She works nail parties, sets up pop-up Salonsito stands at flea markets and fashion fairs, and she welcomes clients at her apartment as well.
Vega and her 25-year-old brother and business partner Gabriel Vega kicked off the mobile nail salon in September 2011 and since then, have experienced a steadily growing clientele. On a weekly basis, Vega (whose day job is managing a pharmacy) has an average of 10 clients. She works nights and weekends and, if business is slow, she will take a weekend off. But not really. She recently enrolled at Manhattan Nail School to take her talent to a professional level. Not that she needs it.
Seated at her dining table in her Washington Heights apartment, which serves as El Salonsito HQ, Vega shares the story of how the playfully-named El Salonsito was born. Since graduating from Manhattan's famed LaGuardia High School (where she was an art major), Vega has never stopped being creative.
One day, she was messing around with PhotoShop (just because she likes to sometimes) and thought to herself, 'What if there was a salon that looked like a bodega?' A random thought, yet Vega came up with a sketch of a logo - an image of a bodega with 'El Salonsito' on its awning. Her brother noticed the image and told her they should go ahead with it. Open a nail salon.
"I owe a lot to him, because he's the mover and the shaker," Vega says of her younger brother, who graduated with a degree in business administration from Berkeley College. "I can be a bit shy sometimes, but he knows how to get out there. Marie Claire, that was him. Fader, that was him." Vega is referencing the two magazine features she has had recently – a neon half-moon pedicure design in Fader in its June-July issue, and her work in July's Marie Claire.
If she could open the nail salon tomorrow, Vega would. She estimates it would take another year or two.
Vega remembers her mind churning.
"I had been following a couple blogs for the last year and a half and I thought 'this nail art thing is really picking up,'" she says. She saw other nail artists being successful, such as Naomi Yasuda and artists in the UK.
Fast forward time and here we are. Vega's clientele has grown through word of mouth –- and the aid of social media giants like Twitter and Instagram. To date, the nail artist has more than 2,000 followers on the photo-sharing app, where she frequently posts images of her nail designs.
Vega's clients are all very different, but have a common thread. "They are definitely people who want to express something on their nails and they want to try this new nail art. I have a lot of crazy nail ladies like me, who are obsessed," Vega says with a laugh.
"I have a specific client who texts me (this is like the second time she texts me)… she says 'Ami, I know I keep saying this, but every time I look at my nails, they make me so happy. When I'm having a bad day, I look at my nails and it cheers me up'," Vega says, "and I'm like 'Good, that's what I set out to do – to make you happy and stir some emotion in you through nail art. That makes me feel good.'"
With regards to Vega's nail art designs, she has painted everything from the ever-popular leopard print to cartoon figures to the work of Keith Haring.
"I'm kind of obsessed with him," she says, "he's all over my house."
As she describes one of her most complicated nail designs that centered on the abstract work of the late graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vega's 2 ½ year-old daughter Kennedy interrupts our interview. We are interrupting her cartoons, actually.
"Baby, this is not the time to be a tiger or a dinosaur," Vega says in a very patient voice. "Be a dinosaur over there."
The curly-haired toddler ambles back to the living room, but her roaring can still be heard. Blue polish covers her small, pudgy nails. Vega laughs when she mentions Kennedy's perfected hand pose, which the pint-sized girl models when asked. It's the exact same pose Vega asks her clients to do for her Instagram photos. Kennedy has picked up a lot from her mother, even recently requesting a specialized design for herself – blue polish with a Mickey Mouse design.
Designing someone's nails can take anywhere from an hour to two hours, depending on how difficult the piece is. And it can cost from 25 to 50 dollars -– depending on the work. Vega says she mostly keeps to herself; not many of her neighbors know about her passion for nail art.
"I think especially older Dominicans… they're not too in tune with the concept of nail art, so it's interesting to see their reactions," Vega says. "They don't understand it but they find it nice and interesting."
Vega's mother loves her work, "but she says for herself and for her age, it's a bit much, it's a bit loud."
But loud is what has gotten Vega's designs attention. Independent curator Rita Pinto stumbled onto Vega's blog and the two women have worked together on Pinto's on-going nail party called Getting' Nail'd. Pinto, Vega, and other nail artists are set to tour at the end of this month.
"To some people it might just be nail art, but to most people who get it, it provides this little gallery… this little work of art that's theirs for a moment in time," Vega says. "When you look at your nails, it brings you back to a moment… a certain feeling."