Maria Ortiz is a queen. Her disciples come from near and far to be blessed, anointed, lacquered and uplifted. Maria, who has lived her whole life in Newark, New Jersey, has been doing nails for twenty-five years. Her intricate designs, reminiscent of the influential styles of the 1990s, have made her a legend in a community of people who wear their nails at notably long lengths and ornately adorned. She is motha.
“When I came out as trans it was hard, because it was the late ’80s– early ’90s and it was such a huge taboo. I can identify with these girls being different. I wanted to be accepted in society, but society wasn’t allowing me in. I took my anger and frustration out in my work—on the canvases that are the nails. All of these designs are me, my inner self. Full of color and dots and lines and checkers and rhinestones!
My first time doing really long nails was in the early ’90s. The client was a walk-in named Laverne, who has since passed away. Her regular nail tech wouldn’t do her nails because they had grown so long. She was desperate. I felt bad and wanted to help her, but I was also scared, so I passed her off to one of my coworkers. But no one wanted to do her nails. She started tearing up. I told her that I would and I made an appointment for the following day. I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But, I also knew that if I did mess up, I could cover it up with a good design. And that’s exactly what happened. I messed up. It took me hours and hours, but I patched everything up with designs and 3D. She was mesmerized. The feeling of seeing her so happy—right in that moment, I knew my life had changed. I loved the way her happiness made me feel.
After that, Laverne basically became my walking billboard. She was always getting stopped and people would ask where she got her nails done. That is how I started getting recognition in the community. Then La Rue (my longest current client) and I found each other on MySpace. I noticed her nails and I kind of stalked her. Finally, once I knew my skills were strong, I hit her up and told her that I would really like to do her nails. She didn’t respond. I messaged her again and she still ignored me. So I just kept doing my thing and posting pictures of my work. It turns out La Rue was watching too, but had a nail tech and didn’t want to ‘cheat.’ One day she messaged me back and the rest is history.”
Maria has created a safe space for her long-nailed sisters. They call themselves the “Long Nail Goddesses of Newark.” No one asks nasty questions when they are together and if people do stare, at least they are staring while the goddesses strut together as their onlookers’ jaws drop. There is strength and power in numbers. But more importantly, there is safety and love in their group. Maria is a true artist. Her salon is where the goddesses come for refuge and to refuel. They discuss their lives, their trials and tribulations, their next outing and their next appointment. A fill-in and fresh design can make any day a better day. In their words—“We were meant to shine, not to blend in.”