The Surreal World of Juan Alvear, the Artist Behind Kelsey Lu and Rosalía’s Sculptural Nails

His wild, sculptural manicures give new meaning to “nail art.”


Part beauty movement, part performance piece, Juan Alvear’s nail art is an amalgamation of the grotesque, the elegant and the self-effacing, a push and pull that is as arresting as it is disconcerting. The New Yorker has worked his magic on the digits of performers like avant-garde Venezuelan artist Arca, “sugar-trap” rapper Rico Nasty, and flamenco pop superstar Rosalía. He’s also a favorite of designer Collina Strada and models like Jazzelle Zanaughtti. The common thread tying together his clients: a commitment to the innovative, the unexpected, and sometimes, the weird.

If you don’t know Alvear by name, perhaps you know the 24-year old’s Instagram account, Nails by Juan. A graduate of Cooper Union, Alvear began experimenting with nail art in his junior year, drawing from his painting and sculpture background to develop his otherworldly creations. “To be honest I don’t really separate the nails I make from the art I make. They are all an extension of me and the nails function almost like a series in a larger body of work. Without my sculpture and painting background, the nails would look drastically different or probably wouldn’t exist,” he says.

Alvear spoke with W while preparing for his first solo fine art show, scheduled to open mid-January at the Treize gallery in Paris. “The show will relate to my nail work and investigate the forms that I am drawn to and use,” he says. “It’ll be the first time I show a series of paintings and sculptures.”

Go behind-the-scenes of Alvear’s creative process, here.

Describe your beauty philosophy in three words.

Eccentric, experimental, optimistic.

A lot of your work mirrors the organic world—flora, fauna, etc. Where else do you look for inspiration?

I can’t help but be attracted to shapes that look juicy. I can’t say there’s one place I look to for color inspiration but I know it when I see it. I don’t necessarily search for color schemes but rather remember them, take a photo of them, or bookmark them when I do come across one that I like IRL, or online.

What does your fine art practice involve? How does it connect to the nail work you develop with your clients?

I see the nails as extensions of my art practice, I’m drawn to specific shapes, colors and textures. Making a nail is oftentimes just like making a painting. In addition to making nails I’m currently working towards my first solo art show and have been painting almost every day. I see a huge relationship formally between my paintings and my nails and they definitely inspire/inform one another. I see colors and textures and put them together to create something. I see both my nail sculptures and my paintings as ornaments of sorts: one exists to decorate the hand and the other for a space.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Who are some of your beauty icons?

Isamaya Ffrench, Dennis Rodman, Erykah Badu, ReallydoeDusty, Uglyworldwide, Honeydon.t, Bjork, Arca, and Rihanna.

What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in the name of beauty?

Though at this point I’m used to it I’d have to say spending hours/days fabricating a set of nails just to have them on for an hour or two is pretty extreme to me—that being said, they live on in the image and as small artifacts/trophies after the fact.

Can you highlight some of your favorite work you’ve done?

Honestly, I can’t say that I prefer certain nails over others because it’s about growing and making more— but one of my most memorable experiences as of late was working with Arca on her Mutant;Faith series at the Shed. It was a transformative series of shows surrounded by a truly amazing team and a good atmosphere. I got the opportunity to work with Björk and it was also my first experience actually doing the nails on stage in front of an audience.

You also collaborated with Rosalía on the nails for her “Aute Cuture” music video. Can you talk a little about the work that went into those pieces?

It was one of the most time-consuming projects I have done to date. I started by making sketches of nails for Rosalía to come up with a concept that fits just right. I ended up going with gilded-rose nails for Rosalía and made the other sets allude to the gilded nails by adorning them with vines and thorns. My assistant Bianca Boutilier and I had two weeks to make the nails for the music video and we pulled a few all-nighters working to get them all made. We flew out to LA a few days before the video shoot and continued to make nails in the hotel room. It was the first time that Bianca and I had spent so much time together and I was nervous it would strain our friendship, but after all was said and done it was a big positive experience that made us grow a lot closer. I couldn’t have done it without her.

You’ve also worked with other musicians including Kelsey Lu, Kim Petras and Charli XCX. Would you say there’s a link between your work and performance?

There definitely is. The nails that I make are much less for practicality and are much more performative, whether for the stage, a moment, a video or a photo.

For one of your more subdued looks, you did Lil Nas X’s nails for the VMAs. What was that process like?

I actually really wanted to give him a 3D cow print nail but it was his first time having anything on his nails so he was a little nervous about it. After we talked about it a little I ended up writing his name with bubble text I created using acrylic, a brush, and topcoat.

Other male artists such as Bad Bunny and A$AP Rocky have also been vocal about their love of nail art. What do you think of statement manicures going mainstream for men?

I love it and feel excited to see more of it. It is typically how I often wear at least one of my hands. A statement manicure is something I’d like to start experimenting with more with and posting more, so stay tuned.

Would you say there’s a stigma around men in the beauty industry?

It’s actually funny how often I need to clarify that when I say I do/make nails I mean on the hand, not in the wall —that I’m not in construction. But I wouldn’t say I experience a huge impact from that. I think part of it has to do with the fact that the nails I do are niche and signature to me.

What do you think there should be more of in the beauty industry?

I think there should be more room for experimentation. The beauty industry is so tightly constructed around very specific expectations of how to wear something, instead of promoting playfulness and experimentation.