IN LATE SEPTEMBER, the ever-giddy rapper Lil Yachty took to TikTok to flaunt his freshly painted fingernails—each talon its own meticulous canvas. On his right hand, two nails were embellished with, respectively, a cow pattern and an image of the earth, while his pointer displayed an approximation of the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” On his left hand, his nails showcased a cutesy panda, the
logo and a petrified looking snowman.
Mr. Yachty’s digits were certainly exceptional when it came to the prowess of his nail-artist, whose identity the rapper declined to reveal. What’s no longer extraordinary: the fact that a male rapper would get his nails painted at all. The list of male pop-cultural figures with is long and getting longer: from fashion designer Marc Jacobs to mop-topped pop princeling Harry Styles to “Fraser Wilson,” the snotty teen character (portrayed by actor Jack Dylan Grazer) at the center of the HBO series “We Are Who We Are.”’
Historically, many notable men have painted their nails. Actor and queer icon Quentin Crisp lacquered his gold as a young man in 1930s London, and was gay-bashed for his trouble, as he recounted in his famous memoir “The Naked Civil Servant.” Starting in the 1970s, when male self-expression was more widely embraced, musical provocateurs like David Bowie, Mick Jagger and later Kurt Cobain painted their nails in startling colors. In the world of sports, Dennis Rodman, the outrageous and outraging ex-NBA player, has done so since at least the late ’80s. When he appeared in “The Last Dance,” the ten-part docuseries about Michael Jordan that aired on ESPN earlier this year, Mr. Rodman’s nails shimmered with a tasteful turquoise tint.
Today, however, the unfamous are experimenting too. In a trickle-down effect, stars like Lil Yachty are increasingly inspiring young men—and not only dour Hot Topic mall goths—to start dabbing lacquer onto their own nails. Male celebrities are “pulling [painted nails] to the forefront and making it extremely mainstream as a trend to accessorize yourself,” said Nick Stenson, the SVP of salon services and trend at Ulta Beauty, a national chain of beauty stores. Its nail-polish offerings have, he said, seen “increased engagement” lately from male shoppers.
Michael McGillviry, 28, who works in learning and development in Seattle, began coating his nails black last year after running across images of Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny with tinted fingernails. “I remember seeing those photographs and being, like, ‘Damn, that was cool,’” said Mr. McGillviry. Bad Bunny’s look reminded Mr. McGillviry of his uneasy childhood fascination with the black nails Carson Daly once sported as an MTV host. Growing up in a “conservative-ish area,” Mr. McGillviry recalls, he viewed polish as too risky for himself. As an adult, though, he feels more freedom to adorn his nails as he chooses.
Emerging beauty companies are catering to men with Mr. McGillviry’s bravado, though they tend to shy away from poppy pink, purple or orange polishes. In July, Faculty, a men’s skincare company based in New York City, launched its first product: a subdued moss-green nail lacquer. Such muted shades align with the tastes of the men I spoke with, who tend to favor darker polish colors such as black and rich blue which complement their more neutral wardrobes.
Faculty co-founder Fenton Jagdeo explained that the company is squarely aiming its efforts at Gen-Z and young millennials—an age group that often views gender lines less rigidly than men have tended to historically. “They’re not concerned about these social norms that our forefathers created,” said Mr. Jagdeo, who at 26 speaks from experience. He described the ideal Faculty customer as an “A$AP Rocky-listening, BTS-enjoying guy who dyes his hair red, paints his nails, enjoys skateboarding and is also incredibly conscious about the environment and social issues.” And, indeed, selfies of Faculty customers that appear on its Instagram account actually adhere to this description.
Jason Schechtman, 32, an app developer in Chicago and Faculty fan, echoed Mr. Jagdeo’s observations about eroding gender lines. “Everything is becoming more fluid and that is something I embrace,” he said. Mr. Schectman was introduced to the idea of painting his nails by a couple he met in Glacier National Park in Montana during a recent road trip. Watching this man and woman paint each other’s nails at the campsite, he asked if he could partake, and has been a colored-nail convert since. “I’m really enjoying the creative expression of it,” he said. Since he began painting his nails—mostly black—he’s been on the receiving end of some snide comments, but considers a little mockery the price of being an early adopter.
Some men view feedback as an opening to start productive conversations. Matt Dela Cruz, 34, who teaches drama to students in kindergarten through eighth grade in Seattle, has been painting his nails since 2016 At first, his pupils reacted abrasively. “A lot of male students were a bit like, ‘Well, you’re a girl then because you’re wearing your nails like that,’” he said. He turned it into a teachable moment about expressing oneself, he said, telling his students that painting his nails “makes me feel good because it makes me feel different.”
The students are coming around. One recently joked, “I know why you painted your pointer fingers black…because you wanted them to stand out when you point at us.” Mr. Dela Cruz also happily reports that the manicurists at his nail salon have finally stopped rolling their eyes. “When I went to the nail salon last week,” he said, “they didn’t make a comment. They’re like, ‘This is normal, men can do whatever.’”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com
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