“The tattoo is essentially just scratched into the surface of the nail, so it just grows out with the nail. It doesn’t go deep enough into the nail to hit the nail bed,” explains Gabby Pignanelli, a tattoo artist at Inked NY in New York City. Pignanelli tattoos her clients’ nails as well as her own with everything from nails to spiderwebs.   

“Nail tattoos should grow out with the nail, which fully takes 6 months, and should not spread down to the nail bed,” confirms Ellen Marmur M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist.   So instead of driving yourself crazy trying to pick a design you’ll love twenty years from now, it’s an opportunity to experiment with design and color. 

“Personally, I prefer black, but any color will work,” says Burak Noire, owner and tattoo artist at Fleur Noire based in New York City and Los Angeles, when it comes to executing nail tats. “I would recommend keeping the design as minimal as possible. You can get creative with the use of fine lines or dots,” he adds. You can also add a gel top coat over the top to make the design pop, or if you need to cover them up for some reason, a couple coats of pigmented polish erase the evidence of your new ink.

“Just have fun with it,” adds Pignanelli, “It’s temporary!”

Are nail tattoos safe?

Both Dr. Marmur and Pignanelli confirm that nail tattoos are generally very safe. That said, it’s advisable to get from a tattoo artist you trust and, as is the case with most body modification, they’re not totally risk-free.

“It is safe when done at the correct depth,” specifies Dr. Marmur. “Nail tattoos are like scratches in the nail plate which is, like hair, densely-packed keratin. Unlike hair, beneath the nail is soft tissue which, can be injured by the tattoo artist if done too aggressively,” she explains. And if you’ve ever injured a fingernail, you know that it’s a sensitive — and vulnerable — area. “The risk would be bleeding and infection, which can become dangerous quickly in the finger. The worst case is compartment syndrome, which is an emergency,” she explains. In general, though, it’s as safe as a typical tattoo.

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