Trippy Nails: Not Your Average Manicure

Montreal Manicurists’ Pot-Fuelled, Hentai-Loving and Dope Nails Are Changing the Game

  • A tropical, palm-tree infused paint job. Photo: Ocean Derouchie

You’re standing in the metro, absent-mindededly commuting. Looking around, your eyes search for anything to study—and then you see them.

A set of immaculately sculpted claws: glossy and pink stiletto nails holding onto the metro pole. The flashy enamel catches your attention, and suddenly you realize you’ve been staring at a stranger’s hands since the last stop.

Fingernails are often the first thing you notice about someone’s hands. So what do they reveal about a person?

“There’s really a spectrum,” explains Megan Cup, a mani-artist and the owner of Trippy Nails, a Montreal nail salon that operates out of Verdun.

“There are people who don’t give a fuck or have a bad nail biting habit, then there are people who just like to keep them nice and neat,” she says. “Girls that like to keep them polished just to look put together and professional. Then, there are those who want their nails to be art.”

While manicured nails once exclusively signalled affluence or vanity, having your nails painted today can allude to a lot more—or a lot less—than wealth. Whether you’re sporting chipped polish, shiny Chanel logos or veer more to the au naturelle aesthetic, those little pieces of keratin at the tips of your fingers can say a hell of a lot about you.

Unkept and short nails could belong to a pair of hard-working hands. Maybe those cracked and dry hands have been washing dishes all day. That long, over-dressed pinky finger? Could be a coke nail!

There’s no right or wrong way to have your nails, but “each one can tell you about a person, their priorities, whether they have an artistic soul, and whether they like to express that through their appearance,” Cup remarks.

Nestled into an unmarked office on Wellington St., Trippy Nails has come a long way since its obscure beginnings in Montreal East. The brand’s creator, Serina Adele, opened Trippy’s doors in 2013, where the itsy-bitsy nail salon ran at the end of the Green Line, in Rivière-du-Prairie.

Reminiscing, Cup explains that they “didn’t have much action then.” The downtime allowed them to build up their brand before moving to a more central location downtown. From a windowless basement on Ste. Catherine St., “We were grinding hard.”

Finally, Cup took over the business and moved to Verdun, where she built a cosy little salon with two painting stations, complete with a clothing rack of DIY designer clothes, and patio for winding down with a joint between sessions. With Trippy’s most recent hire, Cindy Lieu, it’s a two-woman show that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

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For Lieu, who works at standard nail bars on the side, it’s just not the same vibe. “I’ve been working at other places… and it’s not about the money. I just feel more alive here, being surrounded by nicer clients.”

“The clientele is totally different at those shops,” explains Lieu, while painting a set of razor-sharp, ruby-red nails that look more like Dorothy’s magical mary janes.

“These ladies with families, these moms, they need their nails done to look professional at work.” Many of these nail salon regulars simply have money to spend, says Lieu, “Whereas here, younger people are coming here for the experience and the art. They come here to express themselves, not just to have a clean look.”

It’s not a set-up that most people who get their nails done would be used to. Trippy Nails welcomes a unique community that feels more like a group of friends than a customer base.

Maya Makonnen spotted Cup’s nails while working at a clothing store.

“Megan came into the shop that I was working at, and she had some crazy nails—like she had chains on her nails,” she recalled, as Cup painted a tropical scene with palm trees onto Makonnen’s fingertips.

Fast-forward to today, and Makonnen’s nails are one of the few star’s on Trippy’s social media feed. She’s had badass flames, paint that changes colour under water, and most notably, a set with marijuana leaves and manga-style eyes by Lieu.

All girl gang making magic…

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Just like Mary E. Cobb, the first person to open an American nail salon in late 1870s Manhattan, Cup has proven that being an independent business owner—and her own boss—is rewarding. Cup and Lieu are consistently changing the game with fresh designs and techniques that leave Instagram beauty artists and Tumblr personalities scrambling.

Cup’s experiences have been to “take it day by day, though.” Most of their bookings are made through Instagram and text, and the artists paint between one and three sets each on an average day.

Both Cup and Lieu have their own specialities but together try they to encourage their customers to try growing and having their natural nails done. Not only is it more cost efficient but it’s healthier too, they argue.

“We are obsessed with natural nails,” explains Cup. They frequently encourage their customers to skip the acrylics for a little while, reasoning that by protecting the bare nail with good quality gel polish, customers can grow out their cuticles, achieving the look of acrylic but not having to take on the excessive chemicals and drilling that usually come along with it.

“It’s dope to have super long, natural nails—it’s empowering,” Cup enthuses.

“It’s dope to have super long, natural nails, it’s empowering,”— Megan Cup

Their Instagram feed is out of control, featuring their most in-demand designs like holographic manicures, Lieu’s signature bold flames, and edgy sets decked out with gems, decals, and chrome.

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“We’re about doing whatever you wanna do,” said Cup. “Anything [our customers] can think of, we’re down to try it.”

Their different artistic styles combined together create a striking aesthetic that encourages wearers to be daring, bright, and not give a fuck.

There’s something really awesome about female entrepreneurs. Throughout history, men have established themselves as the voice of authority and knowledge on things that their female counterparts have been doing quietly and without appreciation for centuries.

Maybe it’s the combination of sticking it to the corporate man; or it’s being empowered through the femininity of a manicure that says, “I will claw the shit outta you.”

Or perhaps just bearing witness to young women doing good for themselves through something they love to do. But there’s something about Trippy Nails’ come up that inspires that go-getting girl in all of us.

So how much does it cost to sport some of Montreal’s most original nail designs? Basic cosmetic work starts at $35 and can stretch up to $150 for some of Trippy’s most detail-demanding designs. The average cost for most manicures is between $65 and $85 dollars. That might seem steep, but compared to any other ordinary salon in the city, Trippy Nails is pretty on-par.

With that in mind, Trippy Nails—and other salons like it—make me wonder: how accessible can nail art and professional manicure services truly be? Even if you might want to support a local business and the unique artists who run it, having designer nails can cost you a day’s work if you’re working for minimum wage.

But for some people, it’s worth it. Even in extreme situations, it seems like manicures rank among some of the most practised forms of self-care and presentation.

“I was watching a show about heroin addicts, and they had their nails done, too,” remarked Victoria Hall, a Trippy Nails client, as she was pulling her hand from the UV light box that hardens the gel polish.

The show segment made her realize that having your nails done can be crucial for some people, “almost as important as doing heroin,” she said, the words escaping her mouth as quickly as she realized how absurd that that is.

“Nails are less expensive than heroin, guys,” Cup quipped with a laugh. It is absurd, but just like drugs, it can be easy to forget that having the means to indulge in experiences is a privilege in and of itself.

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In a larger context, Trippy Nails’ designs are as much a social commentary as they are little works of art. Decorating fingertips with luxury brand logos, weed leaves and pornographic hentai decals, Cup and Lieu’s work demonstrate that manicures can serve as pseudo-political statements—even in the most subtle of ways. Class and social status, drug and party culture, the sexualization of women’s bodies: these are themes found within the tiny brush strokes of a Trippy Nails manicure, whether intentional or not.

Feminist magazine Jezebel once argued that nail art could be a rare form of a beauty ritual that isn’t “rooted in making oneself more appealing to men or exploiting women’s insecurities,” one which actually “transcends skin colour and hair texture and face symmetry and body type.”

For the average polish-wearer, a manicure’s sole purpose might just be to achieve a professional image. “But people come here to express themselves, not just to have a clean look,” said Lieu. “It’s for yourself.”

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