Over ten years, this local nail technician has built a loyal fan base with her creative, trend-forward designs.
by Colony Little | photography by S.P. Murray
Nail Yeah feels more like an artist’s studio than a nail spa. There are no oversize chairs, no jetted basins for pedicures. Instead, there are two simple, well-lit work stations, with an array of tools and brushes at the ready. Nearby is a colorful assortment of bottled art gels, gel polishes, pigmented foils and chromes. Disco ball planters hang over a chair shaped like a hand with red-painted nails. One wall displays a gallery of nail designs for sale.
This salon is the brainchild of Crystal Clark, a nail technician who specializes in gel nails, custom nail art and affordable, reusable press-on designs. And like her salon, her work defies expectations: her unique designs will draw on anything from abstracted elements of nature to African mudcloth prints. In the 10 years since she founded Nail Yeah, Clark has been cultivating a niche market for fans of nail art in Raleigh.
When Clark first opened her salon, there were limited options for clients who were interested in bold, edgy nail art. At traditional nail salons, the techs could shape nails, pamper hands and apply polish, but few could create a design once the manicure was complete.
“There were no other salons that were offering nail art and I had an incredibly strong hunch that this was something people would want,” Clark says. “I wanted to give them another option because it was something I was passionate about.”
Clark grew up in East Raleigh, where she spent her days in her mother’s hair salon on Rock Quarry Road, shampooing clients and hanging out with the nail tech. “I thought it was amazing what she would do — the long nails with all the art, Detroit and Chicago style,” says Clark. “She would let me sit with her all day and we would talk about everything.”
As a teen, manicures were a hobby; Clark would paint her friends’ nails in her bedroom. She dreamed of a career in fashion design in New York. She studied fashion marketing at the Art Institute of Charlotte, but quickly had second thoughts about her chosen area of focus.
“About eight months into the program, I realized this was not what I thought it was going to be. With this degree I could really only work retail,” she says.
After graduating, Clark pivoted to makeup art, managing a freelance portfolio while also working for local retailers. She ultimately opened her own retail beauty supply store, called Glossy, on Commonwealth in Charlotte.
“I still did makeup and my business partner did nails, and she would always tell me, Crystal, you need to do nails, you’re a nail tech,” says Clark.
It was during this time that Clark started hanging out with photographers. “I was really into that idea of being around people who are into the things you want to do, and I was drawn to the culture,” she says. Clark found freelance work doing makeup for model calls and test shoots. To build contacts, she frequently participated in “Trade for Prints,” or TFPs, where photographers, models and makeup artists would work together to set up photo shoots for their portfolios.
During one TFP, she connected with a model who lived in Harlem; the model invited Clark to a photo shoot in New York City. There, she met two Bronx photographers. “It just branched out from there,” she says.
One photographer, Nigel Ho Sang, gave her the nudge she needed. “He said, If you can do nails, I can get you jobs as a nail tech,” Clark says. He introduced her to a well-known manicurist named Michina Koide, who hired Clark as an assistant on editorial shoots. As Clark built her portfolio, she worked with celebrity stylists and photographers. (A highlight: working on a shoot for artist and singer Solange Knowles with fashion photographer Itaysha Jordan.)
Living in New York City was a formative period for Clark, both creatively and personally. “You could just be in New York. I felt like there was a place for me there. The things I’m interested in, the things I think are beautiful, there are other people that feel the same way,” she says. “It also gave me confidence to keep moving forward because I went there without many contacts and not much awareness, just a belief in myself.”
After two years in the Big Apple, Clark made the decision to return to North Carolina, where she gave birth to her daughter. Once back home and closer to her family, she made another important career decision: to go back to school, for a nail tech license from Troutman’s College of Manicuring.
She created Nail Yeah in 2013, starting out by participating in pop-up nail bars, trunk shows and music events. She gave out business cards that doubled as nail files; she was strategic about cultivating a strong social media presence. By 2014, she was able to open her first salon, in the Carter Building on Glenwood Avenue. There, Clark regularly held events, inviting guest nail artists, beauty brands and other partners into her space. She developed a tight but loyal client list.
Artspace CEO Carly Jones is among those longtime clients. “I have developed a trusting relationship with Crystal over the years and I respect her artistic eye,” says Jones. “She knows my style and threshold for experimentation.” Jones often calls for Clark’s Freestyle service, where she spontaneously creates a look for her customers.
“I like to vibe with my clients,” says Clark. “I get to know them, see what they’re wearing or how they’re accessorizing, and that’ll determine the nail art that comes out.”
Nail Yeah’s most popular design is a Milky Floral, where Clark layers translucent polish with floral patterns so that they appear suspended in liquid. But Clark can create a design inspired by just about anything: 1960s psychedelic patterns, illustrations from flyers for a 1990s rave, even poppy graphics from someone’s old Trapper Keeper.
Clark stays on top of trends through magazines and social media, following artists from all over the world. “Through Crystal, I’ve begun to appreciate the fullness of nail design as an art form,” says Jones.
Part of what has allowed nail art to flourish is advances in nail polish, particularly with gel polish and press-on nails. “When I started doing nails, regular polish was the most popular — some people got acrylics or French manicures, but the styles were generally more conservative. Now, people are more adventurous,” says Clark. Most manicures take about an hour to complete; nail art can add another hour or more to the process, but these days, that design can last several weeks.
Last fall, Clark relocated her salon from Glenwood Avenue to a new space near Saint Augustine’s University. In addition to doing nails, she also offers assorted beauty products like hand creams, scrubs and manicure tools, plus accessories like colorful sunglasses, earrings and patches.
In September, she’ll host Triangle nail artists for a unique salon event that celebrates the culture of nail design. Called Art Within Reach, the exhibit will display photography, paintings, sculptures and art installations paired with nail designs.
The goal of this event is to build a collaborative and supportive community of artists. “Raleigh has such an incredible nail community, I want to bring us together,” says Clark. “I don’t think people realize the depth of talent here and how diverse it is.”
This article originally appeared in the August issue of WALTER magazine.