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Meet San Francisco’s 17-year-old self-taught nail technician

Seventeen-year-old high school senior Jianna Cariño has always excelled as a student. But she’s also exceptional at doing nails.

As a child, Cariño said she spent hours hiding in her bathroom, hunched over a few bottles of nail polish and painstakingly manicuring her fingernails. And while her relatives have always marveled at how talented she is at nail art, it took a pandemic and remote schooling for Cariño to turn her childhood hobby into a business endeavor.

Today, Cariño operates a homespun nail salon out of her parents’ garage in Visitacion Valley, all while juggling a part-time job, the turbulence of life as a high school senior at Lowell High School—one of the city’s most academically rigorous schools—and being a big sister to a baby sibling born during the pandemic.

She advertises her nail services through Instagram, and her clients range from family members to schoolmates to word of mouth referrals.

Cariño’s technique involves transforming acrylic nails into unique, miniature works of art. It’s an intricate process that she said can often take four or more hours to complete.

“I do think of myself as an artist,” said Cariño. “It’s cool to see that you can create something on a canvas so small.”

Jianna Cariño did her cousin's nails on Dec. 21, 2021. She drew inspiration from holiday decorations for the design. | Photo courtesy of Jianna Cariño

The 17-year-old, who said she suffers from social anxiety, believes investing in her nail technician career has helped her overcome instances of self-doubt and insecurity. Her parents, while hesitant at first, have also come to accept her entrepreneurial venture.

“My dad, his dream for me is to be a software engineer or something like that,” said Cariño. “But I’m pretty sure he’s coming around and understanding that that’s not what I want to do.”

And while Cariño insists science isn’t her strongest subject—she prefers psychology or math—excelling as a nail technician does require a strong base in chemistry. For example, the acrylic used in sculpted nails is formed by the reaction of a monomer liquid with a polymer powder. Cariño is self-taught and credits YouTube with her nail education.

For Cariño, starting her business—and seeing its success—has taught her that she doesn’t necessarily need to follow the traditional or expected path of a Lowell graduate. She hopes to enroll in cosmetology school post-graduation.

“I really did not think that this would go anywhere, and I think I just had a lot of self-doubt,” Cariño said. “But my confidence has grown from this. It’s a really big accomplishment for me and I never really thought I would get this far.”

Editor’s Note: Feb. 10, 2022

After this story was published, we heard from several nail salon professionals who questioned the legality of the subject’s hobby, pointing out that nail technicians are subject to state licensing requirements and a range of health and safety protocols. They also noted that nail salons were especially hard-hit during the pandemic. The article should have emphasized that nails are a passion project for Cariño, not a business, and that offering commercial services is a far more complex and costly endeavor. Those seeking nail services should choose a licensed practitioner for their services.