(CNN) -- The patrons of Poochiez Pawz Nail Salon are more than clients -- they're followers of a team of nail technicians revered for their skill in creating wearable works of art.
Many of those customers followed Tashina "Poochie" Green when she left a salon in Atlanta's West End Mall and started beautifying nails with colorful, intricate designs in a barbershop. They donated money to help her open a salon in southwest Atlanta in 2005, four years after she left her hometown of Savannah to pursue a career in the big city.
Sandwiched between an abandoned food market and a religious bookstore that has yet to remove the "China Soul Cafeteria" sign of its previous owner, the strip mall salon has a steady stream of customers. They come in as blank canvases without any specific demands, except for nail art that will earn compliments from friends and strangers on the street.
"We don't ask no questions, we just sit in the chair and shut up," said Shauna Homer, a 42-year-old mental health care provider who has been seeing Poochie for six years. "I'm moving to New York in a few months and I'm sick already thinking about my nails because no one else can do what she does."
Poochie's reputation for creating hot nails has drawn customers and fellow nail techs from across the United States and the Caribbean at a time when mainstream America is catching up with Europe and Asia in embracing elaborate forms of nail decor.
From the runway to main street, nail art has emerged as a democratic form of self-expression in which anyone can participate. Spurred in part by the recession, it's a relatively cheap -- nail work at Poochiez Pawz starts at $30 -- temporary way to feel stylish and make a statement. Plus, it doesn't require a mirror to bear witness to its awesomeness.
It's no longer just about bold solid colors or eye-catching metallics. Inspired by celebrities and do-it-yourself guides in fashion blogs and magazines, enthusiasts are embracing all manner of experimentation: intricate floral patterns and cartoon characters, glittery mosaics, 3-D motifs emblazoned with lace, gems, charms, foils, even magnets. The shapes of nails are even changing, from traditional round and square to diagonal and borderline-threatening almonds and pointy stilettos.
You don't need fake nails or tips to enjoy the trend. Within the exploding DIY community, Zooey Deschanel-inspired tuxedos or Lisa Frank-inspired leopard prints can be achieved on natural nails, and are just as popular as elaborately painted acrylics or tips adorned with Swarovski crystals (sometimes referred to as "treasure nails" for creating an effect that looks as though the nails were dipped in a treasure chest).
"Nail art has been around for as long as any of us can remember, but in the U.S., it started picking up and really becoming a noteworthy trend in the last five or so years," said Sree Roy, managing editor of trade publication NAILS Magazine. "It started in fashion, rock and hip hop stars, consumer editorial, then in the last few years or so, we've really seen more people (like working women, who prior would only embrace a nude pink) start embracing bolder nail colors and nail art styles."
Nail art is the cosmetic commodity that glitzy celebrities like Lady Gaga Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj lend their names to, the theme of gallery exhibits and glossy coffee table books. Even Martha Stewart got behind the trend last month, when she invited "nail queen" Sophy Robson, one of the UK's best known artists, on her show to create pink nails adorned with gold bows and studs.
The new lipstick of cosmetics
The cosmetics industry has responded to the demand with a slew of DIY accessories that led the nail category to surpass lipstick in 2011. Sales of tools like glitter gels, pens, decals and magnetic nail polish -- which let everyday people imitate what Poochie and her colleagues have been doing for decades -- grew 59% in the first 10 months of 2011, according to market researcher NPD Group. Sales of Sally Hansen's Salon Effects grew 172% from 2010 to 2011, generating $50 million at the retail level alone, according to the cosmetics company.
"Nail art is very accessible," said Bill Boraczek, senior vice president of Sally Hansen Global Marketing. "If you think you're too curvy or too straight, too young or too old, unattractive or not, it doesn't matter because you can still have beautifully groomed nails."
It's also an affordable luxury, said Marian Newman, godmother of Europe's editorial shoots and runway shows. She knows from experience: She quit her job as a forensic scientist with London's Metropolitan Police and opened one of the UK's first nails-only salons in 1987, right before a recession.
"I worried at first but the opposite happened and we got busier and busier," said Newman, who has done the nails for more than 50 covers of British Vogue and counts Valentino and Alexander McQueen among her fashion house clients.
"Even when people don't have enough money for a lovely holiday or a fabulous facial, they probably have enough they can spend a little bit on their nails," said Newman. "It's not that expensive and it's not life changing like getting you hair cut short. If you don't like it after a day or two, take it off."
The renewed interest is also a boon to the salon and professional nail tech industry, who have embraced new techniques dedicated to making nail art safer and longer-lasting, said Naja Rickette, co-host of Nail Talk Radio and owner of Extremedys Salon in Los Angeles.
"We've always been the redheaded stepchild of the cosmetics industry, and we're still below hair and makeup, but nails are finally having their moment."
Nail art's supporting role in Fashion Week
Salon customers aren't the only ones sporting the latest nail art trends. Nicole Miller, Kate Spade and Charlotte Ronson are among the designers and fashion houses experimenting with custom colors and bold designs for their runways shows in this week's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, underscoring nail art's growing influence in high fashion and pop culture.
"You used to see runway models with no nail polish at all, but that changed when designers realized nails could be part of the overall look," said Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, artistic director of nail company OPI, which is doing nails this season for several designers, including Jason Wu, BCBGMAXAZRIA and Lauren Moffatt.
"Nails have become a major trendsetting accessory, not just for high-fashion consumers but for the average woman as well."
It wasn't always that way. Nails used to be an afterthought, typically the final touch of sheer pink by a stylist after doing the makeup, celebrity nail technician Deborah Lippmann said.
"We're part of the whole process. We work the the designers and stylists and get opportunities to see the fashions and give input," said Lippmann, who collaborated with Kate Spade to create the polka-dot nails featured in the designer's Friday afternoon show.
"It's not about doing funky nail art for the sake of funky nail art," she said. "It should be the finishing touch that adds to makeup and coordinates with everything."
For designer Tracy Reese, nails become a part of the discussion pretty much as soon as she puts the fabrics to bed and finalizes the color palette, she said. Like many designers, her brand partners with a cosmetics company to provide hair, makeup and nails. This show marks her 13th season with Sally Hansen.
"It's that finishing touch that sends the message down all the way to your fingertips," she said. "I look at it from the perspective of how can this enhance our whole beauty message, how does it help paint the picture of this woman we're sending down the runway?"
As usual, the people attending and covering Fashion Week are sources of sartorial marvel comparable to the runways models.
"The girls styling the shows, the hair and makeup people, or bloggers or reporters, all of them have crazy nails," said Fleury Rose, a New York-based nail artist who is collaborating with nail polish company Color Club to do nails for several shows.
Rose began doing nail art professionally in New York just three years ago, but already, her knack for creating eye-catching designs has landed her in Teen Vogue, Seventeen and Fashionista, and earned her a partnership with Color Club. So far this Fashion Week, she has worked on shows for designers Charlotte Ronson and Katie Gallagher
"What I'm trying to do is show that nail art is universal," said Rose, who works out of Brooklyn's Tomahawk Salon. "You don't have to be someone who likes eyeballs or galaxy designs or long talon-studded nails -- though I can totally do that for you. You can be an actor, artist, a working professional and I can create the perfect look for you."
The rise of "nail porn" on the Internet
Rose and other up and coming nail artists are part of the latest wave of entrepreneurs capitalizing on the trend with the help of social media. Self-publishing sites like tumblr have created vibrant online communities where you'll find some of the most extreme forms of "nail porn" and DIY tips.
The popular tumblr, f****yeahnailart, allows users to browse and submit nail art images by DIYers and professionals. Each day, the site gets anywhere from 50 to 200 new followers and dozens of submitted images, moderator Riley Kennysmith said.
"I've had friends call me and say they overheard someone in the nail aisle at Target or CVS or wherever talking about my blog," she said. "I haven't personally witnessed that yet. But if FYNA has become grocery store fodder, then the trend is definitely reaching the masses!"
Other sites such as Nail Art 101 are passion projects where DIYers like Lisa Bailey provide tutorials on how to do tuxedos or Ninja Turtle nails and tips for cuticle care.
British nail artist Sophie Harris-Greenslade, aka the Illustrated Nail, attributes her meteoric growth to the launch of her tumblr in early 2011. In less than a year, she has done fashion shoots and catwalk shows for London Fashion Week. Her work appeared in Nailphilia, London's first gallery exhibit dedicated to nail art, and caught the eyes of performer M.I.A. and Nicole Scherzinger. She was tapped to design nail art for the launch of Minaj's nail polish collaboration with OPI.
"Without my blog I don't think I would be in the position I am today," she said.
Reaching the masses from the ground up
Industry insiders credit Chanel's foray into bold color palettes in the 1990s with sending the message to the rest of the industry, initiating a trickle-down effect to the consumer. But if fashion designers and celebrities introduced nail art to mainstream America, nail techs like Poochie deserve credit for nurturing the trend within their communities.
The concept of the salon as a community is the focus of a new book by Chicago-based artist Dzine, who visited salons in the United States, Asia and Europe to capture the creative spirit of nail art, far from the glitz of the fashion and entertainment worlds. "Nailed" (Standard Press) traces the history of nail art to China's Ming Dynasty, where members of the upper class kept long nails as status symbols that implied they were not supposed to touch anything.
Centuries later, he met women in European countries like Poland and France with the same pointy fingernails for different reasons.
"It's really about identity and making a unique statement," said Dzine, whose real name is Carlos Rolon. "I don't see it as any different from someone who wants to make a custom car to their liking. These people create something to make them stand apart from the crowd."
The book was an offshoot of a gallery exhibit in which he recreated the "Bootleg Beauty Salon" that his mother ran in her living room during his childhood. The exhibit, which received widespread praise in New York's Salon 94 and Miami's 2011 Art Basel, featured real nail techs who performed manicures on visitors to the exhibit.
"What really struck me, and what has always been the base of the project and book, was how the nail culture created a sense of community," he said. "Nail art is one of those things that people are discovering for the first time, even though it's been around for while. They just never looked at it as related to art or culture."
Within the confines of small salons like Poochiez Pawz, relationships form between the artists and their followers over their shared passion.
"We're like a family," said retiree Gwen Grier, who has been using Poochie's services for 11 years. "She looks out for me and I trust her. When I don't have my nails, nobody pays me no attention."