Inside Austin’s Cute Nail Studio, Where Black Lives Matter and Gender Norms Don’t


Tucked among the paradoxical extremes of Austin’s East Side, where modular yuppie condos share street corners with gritty hipster bars, stands one rainbow-painted house plucked straight from the cover of your favorite Lisa Frank binder from fifth grade. Meet the Cute Nail Studio. “[We wanted a place] where you can come in, be yourself, ask for whatever. And we’ll celebrate whatever your idea of beauty is and just go hard in that direction,” says Jason Darling. He and Maria Darling are the married entrepreneurs behind this dreamy, self-proclaimed “queer as fuck” salon and arguably the most interesting parents on Zoom PTA meetings.

Currently, Jason has an immaculate black-line art manicure featuring varying nail lengths and shapes. He holds his hand up to the camera during our Zoom call and flares each digit like an accordion fan: “We call them party fingers — utilitarian and sexy.” Meanwhile, Maria, face framed by a shag of dark curls, is the punk-rock version of a Botticelli girl with dyed armpit hair.

Cute Nail Studio keeps Austin beauty culture weird, inclusive, and doused in glitter.

The love they have for each other and the safe space they’ve cultivated on an otherwise drab downtown Austin street is revolutionary — stepping outside gender beauty norms is still a tenuous notion in the South. “I’ve been getting my nails done at salons since I was 23 or 24,” Jason says. “And every time, most places would be like, ‘So, you just want a buff?’ And I’d be like, ‘No,’ and get a lot of side-eye or people trying to pull me away from getting, like, a really slutty red.”

It’s safe to say none of the nail techs at Cute are in the business of swaying patrons from living their slutty-red truths. Their inclusive, welcoming energy is felt immediately through your mask as you step into the pastel pink salon. Cute is a clear-eyes, full-heart, can’t-believe-what-the-hell-is-going-on sensory experience. It transports you into a “kawaii disco nightmare,” says nail artist Kendall Mastin (kawaii is a Japanese term for cute).

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