Hand-carved three-dimensional fruit, intricate snakeskin and tiny faces all painted on a fingernail. Is it art? Or just a really good manicure...

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NEW YORK — Hand-carved three-dimensional fruit, intricate snakeskin and tiny faces all painted on a fingernail.

Is it art? Or just a really good manicure?

Maybe it’s both.

The designs, part of a traveling art exhibit, may seem outlandish for an everyday hand, but they’re just an extreme representation of the growing trends in nail design and manicures.

The beauty salon has long been a staple for wealthy women, but the business of affordable manicures and pedicures is booming. It’s hard to go a few blocks in many cities and suburban shopping strips without seeing a nail salon.

Judy Lessin, beauty editor of the trade publication Nails Magazine, said with the growth comes more daring designs than the traditional one-color polish job.

“It’s like Starbucks for your hands,” she said. “You can give yourself something special, a little treat, that’s fun and relatively inexpensive.”

Lessin said most customers will add a little flair like a rhinestone or a flower on one nail. “It may be quick, but it takes skill to do it well,” she said.

The traveling exhibit is made up of designs that took hours — and lots of skill — to create. More than 100 manicurists created nail art for the nationwide contest.

The winners each received a $1,000 check, and their finished nails were put on hand models and professionally photographed for the exhibit, which traveled to New York, Atlanta and Houston.

Lessin was one of the judges. She said the winners were chosen for originality, not necessarily wearability.

“It’s sort of like a runway fashion,” she said. “You don’t want wear them to the office. Maybe you’d wear a toned down version on one nail or something, or go all out for a holiday.”

Winner Erica Plyter of Fort Stewart, Ga., filed bits of acrylic down to make three dimensional grapes, oranges and strawberries which hang off the tips of the nails she created. She said she spent weeks working on the idea.

“I was standing in the grocery store line and I saw this ad for the contest, and I was in the mood for a project,” she said. “But I started feeling like a full-time artist.”

Plyter, 32, gives manicures out of her home. She hand-paints all her designs and does not use an electric drill. It may be time consuming, but she finds it calming and she likes the human interaction.

“I have brushes that have only three hairs on it,” she said. “I work better with a small space, so nails are perfect for me. I don’t know what I’d do with a huge empty canvas.”

She loves to do scenes that use one idea on each nail and tie the hand together. For example, she recently finished a theme called “under the big top” where she painted circus animals and balloons on each acrylic. Except she can’t find anyone in her area who’s willing to sit for hours for “extreme” nail art.

“I haven’t found anyone who really likes the flashy, big stuff yet,” she said. “I at least try to put some sparkle or a rhinestone on at least one nail before they go out the door.”

Manicurist Amy Lin said some of her original designs take up to an hour to create. She carries a box full of stickers, stencils and jewels along with nail polish.

“This is art, it’s just a more functional kind of art,” she said. “It has a specific purpose, to make the client look nice.”

Lin said demand for her work has grown so much that she only works on magazine photo shoots now. Hot trends right now? Company logos, like Louis Vuitton and Prada.

The growth of the business is thanks mostly to immigrants from Vietnam who opened up more affordable salons, said Hannah Lee, executive editor of Nails Magazine. The U.S. Census Bureau created a separate category for nail salons in 2002, breaking out from beauty salons, and there were more than 9,000 establishments across the country. That doesn’t include more traditional beauty salons, where manicures and pedicures are part of the services; there are more than 74,000 in the U.S.

Prices range from $7 for a bare bones manicure up to $50 at swank salons. Nearly 38 percent of all nail technicians are Vietnamese, according to a Nails Magazine survey of 1,987 technicians.

“There wasn’t a nail salon on every corner, it was more of a spa type thing,” Lee said of nail services a few decades ago. “In the past 20 years, as the Vietnamese came over, they opened salons and the prices were lower and it turned the market into a bigger industry. Now there’s more demand.”

With more demand comes new trends. One change these days is to use gel nails instead of acrylic, and to add such “luxury” services as a hot paraffin dip or stone massage on top of the basic manicure. Products also are easier to work with and have more staying power.

At the exhibit reception at the Museo del Barrio in New York recently, cosmetologists offered free manicures to guests, many of whom seemed much more concerned with getting their nails painted than checking out the photographs.

Some questioned why the exhibit was so small, and were shocked that the photographs were even hung in a museum.

Others were more excited about the photographs.

“I think they’re beautiful,” said Donna Taylor, 45, of New York. “They look like all sorts of other paintings I’ve seen. There’s no difference.”

Plus, she got a free touchup on her nails for coming.