Nail Mary! Lesly Arrañaga is bringing Catholic-core to nail charms

Brimming with crosses, saints and la Virgen de Guadalupe, the nail artist’s work draws inspiration from her Mexican heritage and Latine community in Los Angeles

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Our childhoods and cultural background often shape the artistic work we create when we’re older, both subtly and more overtly. For Lesly Arrañaga, it is the Latine community in Los Angeles, where she was born and now lives, and her Mexican background, from which she draws inspiration – particularly the rich religious tradition in that culture. Under the 26-year-old nail artist’s skillful hand, Catholic imagery is transformed into tiny charms decorated in gold and silver. The vibrant, lavish cemeteries found in Mexico are replicated on nails complete with crosses and the image of la Virgen de Guadalupe.

For another nail set, Arrañaga drew from the Yucatán legend about a Mayan princess’s forbidden lover who turned into a beetle she wore close to her heart, and created a manicure of ma’kech beetles adorned with colourful gems and chains.

But Arrañaga’s maximalist, highly decorative nail style isn’t just limited to Virgin Marys and crucifixes. From sculptures of fish tanks, mushroom gardens and futuristic chairs to pendants of puppies and clowns, she can do it all and fit it all onto a single nail bed. Packing each finger with lively, elaborate textures and designs, often mixing handmade moulds with pearls, shells and opals, she lives by the motto: “There are no rules to nails.” 

Arrañaga’s talent is that she spawns the most mundane things into art – bubble handheld games, zote bar soap, botas picudas, dog tags, belt buckles, olive oil, Fabuloso and beans. Through these, she actively defies cyclical trends and instead finds beauty in everyday objects while honouring her culture. “I’m passionate about art, self-expression, individuality and my surroundings,” she says. “I like to bring everything together and put it on nails.”

Below, we chat with Arrañaga about how her family sparks creativity and how she lives in her own little world.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? 

Lesly Arrañaga: I was born in Los Angeles and moved to St Helena when I was six. I grew up in a very supportive Mexican household. Being first-generation, my parents were tasked with the job of survival and had to put their dreams aside. So they have always pushed my sisters and me to do whatever we want, to follow our dreams. They taught me the importance of working hard and not being afraid to fail. I’ve had an interest in art ever since I can remember. I see everything I do daily as a form of art – whether I’m cooking, cleaning, working or getting ready.

How did you get into nail art?  

Lesly Arrañaga: I always knew I wanted to do something artistic, so I took a leap of faith during COVID. It all started by doing my sister, my cousins and my nails with 98-cent polish from Walmart. We would sit at the kitchen table, and I would use toothpicks to do the designs, which was kind of a full-circle moment because when I was little I had the book Nail Art by Sherri Haab. It had different nail designs that you could do with toothpicks. I got my manicurist license and from there, it’s been a beautiful journey. I still have moments where I’m like, is this really real?

What’s your earliest beauty-related memory?

Lesly Arrañaga: I was in fifth grade, and I remember going to Walmart and getting a set of toe press-ons with a light pink plaid French tip. When I got home, I went out to play hide-and-seek but was wearing flip-flops, so my feet got dirty. I would make sure to stop mid-game and wipe the toenails so you can make sure you were able to see my nails.

Which fictional character do you most relate to?

Lesly Arrañaga: Debbie from The Wild Thornberrys and Roger from American Dad; both are in their own little worlds.

Who are your beauty icons?

Lesly Arrañaga: My aunts in the 90s; I saw pictures of how they would dress and do their make-up – it was the best. Mi tía Perry always had thin eyebrows, brown or deep red lip liner, and a white eyeshadow base. She would then add a colour on top to match her clothes and eyeliner – but honestly, the eyeliner was probably tattooed on.

What does beauty mean to you? 

Lesly Arrañaga: Beauty to me is doing whatever you feel like doing. It changes every day.

When do you feel most beautiful?

Lesly Arrañaga: When I’m fresh out of the shower and have a decent amount of sleep.

You have to replace part of your body with that of an animal or a mythological creature. What do you go for?

Lesly Arrañaga: I’d replace my legs with a mermaid tail so I can live both in water and land.

You’ve had an accident which causes you to lose your sense of smell. The doctors can’t return it fully but can give you the ability to smell one scent. What do you pick?

Lesly Arrañaga: My dad’s scent after a long day of work – it’s a mix of his cologne, deodorant, sweat and cigarettes. It reminds me of his hugs, I can’t describe it, but if you know, you know. 

You encounter a hostile alien race and sound is their only mechanism for communication. What song would you play to them to inspire them to spare you and the rest of the human race? 

Lesly Arrañaga: “Dern Kala” by Khruangbin.

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