Helping Hands

A white acrylic counter is covered in lustrous gold flakes, flashy Swarovski crystals, shimmering pots of glitter and tiny plastic hillocks painted with unicorns, pentagrams, dinosaurs, rainbow streaks, gold checkering. 

They’re fake nails, and they’re Alex Ramirez’s practice canvases. “I was the kid who was getting yelled at during recess for painting her nails,” she says, and, aside from the scolding, not much has changed.

Ramirez is the owner and artist behind Nail Haven, a one-woman studio run out of Salon Lulu that offers not-so-basic manicures in a city where most nail salons are traditional. To start with, Ramirez uses only gel polish, which is light-baked as opposed to air-dried, and lasts much longer—about two weeks. She says non-gel polishes, which take an hour to fully dry and chip off easily, are “a waste of both our time.”

sponsored by

Deathless presented by Goodspeed Musicals

Then there’s the art—tiny portraits and intricate patterns she designs and paints into spaces that are typically less than a couple square centimeters. “It’s part of the challenge,” she says. “I love being able to showcase my ability to do something super intricate.” It’s the most minuscule details that give her the biggest thrills, as with her Hello Kitties: “A microscopic line in her hair bow makes all the difference between an okay Hello Kitty and a fantastic Hello Kitty,” she says.

Recently, she’s been on a kick of pieces inspired by director and animator Hayao Miyazaki. The characters from My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away are realized on sample nails displayed at her table. She’s also recently finished a set taken from heavy-hitters of modern art—five plastic nails show details of works by Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, Lichtenstein and Escher, done in migraine-inducingly small brushstrokes. “You can make anything small,” she says. “You’re only as limited as your imagination.”

Orders for Matisse nails, however, are few and far between. Most clients are just looking for a little sparkle, flowers, starbursts or, in my case, cacti. As we talk, Ramirez plans out the shape of the cacti—standard, three-armed saguaros with cartoonish charm—and begins to paint with a brush that appears to have only three bristles.

While the canvas size presents a special challenge, there are a couple of tricks she uses to make it easier on herself. Before it’s baked, gel polish is alcohol-soluble, so a little rubbing alcohol on the tip of a brush serves as an eraser. Additionally, the LED light she uses to cure the polish only takes 20 seconds, so she can save her work as she goes.

While she’s always been drawn to nail art, it wasn’t until a honeymoon to Japan in 2016 that Ramirez felt the need to answer the call professionally. “The women in Japan have the most insane nails. They’re so cool,” she says, listing marble and tortoise-shell patterns as her favorites.

When she returned home to the States, she felt ready. “I didn’t want to not do it because I was scared,” she says. Having begun in earnest in February, she charges $30 for a standard manicure, $40 for a manicure with two accent nails and $50 and up for the complete nail art experience.

“We all have our thing,” Ramirez says, when I ask how she defends against the expected complaint that nail art is superfluous, or even a little ridiculous. “Maybe the person saying that is a male in their mid-30s who’s spent close to 10 grand on video games in their life,” she says with a laugh. “I like making people feel good. If having cacti or unicorns on your nails make you happy, you should do it.”

And she’ll be there to help.

Nail Haven
Inside Salon Lulu – 839 Chapel St, 3rd Fl (map)
Tues 9am-6pm, Thurs 9am-8pm, Fri 9am-6pm, Sat 9am-4pm
(203) 597-7979

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos provided courtesy of Nail Haven.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

Leave a Reply