By Vasia Rigou
AstroWifey, the alter ego of Ashley Crowe, can make nails look like actual pieces of contemporary art. Working in polish since 2008, Crowe taught herself how to paint custom designs on tiny canvases inspired by high fashion, art, pop culture, architecture and design. She treats each manicure like a personalized art experience, and can bring to life pretty much anything from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein miniature paintings, to designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, to the essence of David Bowie, to Japanese culture, to sci-fi, to punk rock, to the galaxy. Her designs are topped off with glitter, studs, semi-precious stones, foil, jewelry or Swarovski crystals, giving nails a true sculptural element.
“I look at my nail sessions as a collaboration between my clients,” she says. “I find what inspires them—themes they have in mind, color options or design ideas. I then find visual inspiration within their vision. Most of my clients allow me to improvise quite a bit with some slight guidance, such as color or theme. I definitely like to have some creative control,” she says, explaining that she values clients who understand and support the art aspect of her work.
Crowe goes by the name of “AstroWifey,” a phrase built off of “astronaut’s wife,” a woman she describes as out of touch with reality, yet strangely attractive. Building her brand around her otherworldly nature, Crowe has amassed a raging social media following and clientele that includes everyone from artists to major pop celebrities (Lady Gaga and Zoë Kravitz). She’s also the founding editor of the first US nail art lifestyle magazine, Tipsy Zine.
“I got interested in doing nail art by accident,” she says. “I was in an After School Matters program through Chicago Public Schools in high school. There I learned painting techniques. I really enjoyed painting but found myself overwhelmed by the size of traditional canvas. So one day I just started painting on my nails, replicating pop art paintings and gluing baubles and gems. I didn’t think I was onto something,” she adds, also mentioning her tendencies to doodle on her notebooks, backpacks and sneakers. “It just naturally moved to my nails,” she says.
In the early days, Crowe would do the nails of friends and early clients on the side. ”I wasn’t doing manicures, just painting on the nails,” she says. “The day I decided to leave to do nails full time was the scariest day of my life!” With her newly acquired nail technician license and a brand new career path, AstroWifey was born. Looking back to what she believes is the best decision she’s ever made, she stresses the importance of taking the leap: “You need to take risks to reap rewards. And if you work hard, are honest and have passion you’re bound to end up on top!”
Crowe speaks passionately about her art—“I fell hard in love and never looked back”—and this passion reflects in her process and execution of her manicure masterpieces. “To find inspiration, I look everywhere. Everything from pop culture, art, things I stumble upon in real life, fashion and so on can spark inspiration,” she says. “Sometimes I find something in person and take a photo of it—a mosaic near the train or the way a flower’s color ombres. I also have tons of patterns and prints that I find on the internet and pin to Pinterest and loads of pattern and textile books in my nail studio.”
Her nail designs have been featured at various museums as part of site-specific, art installations (the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, MoMA PS1 and the Brooklyn Museum) and she has worked alongside Chicago’s Dose Market and Akira, as well as corporate clients including Topshop, Revlon, Nike and Apple. But walking into the studio of Chicago’s most-regrammed nail artist, the client is the center of attention.
Crowe listens carefully to her clients’ ideas, trying to figure out the best way to visualize it. She will ask questions, noticing their style and personality while she sketches samples on a little nail-shaped sketchpad. She knows there are thousands of variations on even the simplest things and it’s her job to figure out what the clients want even if they can’t show or describe it themselves.
“The collaboration element of my work allows me to work with a largely diverse clientele and that’s what brings me the most happiness in what I do,” she says. “I love meeting new people, I learn something new from each person and I love to be surrounded by diversity and individuality,” she adds.
When working with AstroWifey, time slows down. There’s an element of ritual in her approach. Watching your nails gradually turn into works of art with incredibly complicated details that sometimes take hours to complete is a dazzling experience to say the least—almost of voyeuristic nature. Crowe is modest about revolutionizing the nail art industry and keeps the focus on the client, making it clear that the client is a part of something private, exciting and captivating that constantly pushes the creative boundaries of all involved.