Arts & Culture News

Dallas Photographer Tortellini Zooms in on the Beauty of Everyday Nail Art

Dallas artist Tortellini captures the most artistic claws in Dallas with his camera.
Dallas artist Tortellini captures the most artistic claws in Dallas with his camera. Eddie Don Ross
Ever since Dallas native Sha’Carri Richardson ran the 100-meter dash in 10.86 seconds and won her spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, her nails have been the talk of the world, earning headlines and features from Today, StyleCaster, Teen Vogue and The Associated Press. But before the national coverage, and months before the Olympic trials, local photographer Don “Tortellini” Thomas II had reached out to Richardson for a photo of her nails, as part of a larger project he was working on.

“I wanted her to be a part of it,” Tortellini says. “I wanted her to represent Dallas in my exhibition because she embodies so much in her sport. She represents power, she represents tenacity, she represents our neighborhood, and she’s wearing nails while kicking ass. … I really wanted to pay homage to her, to nail culture, to sports.”

Richardson never responded to Tortellini's emails and Instagram messages. The project eventually developed into KLAWZ 1.5, a film and digital photography exhibition at Southern Methodist University's Pollock Gallery. While the show wrapped up at the end of last month, its inspiration and message are still very much relevant — and its sequel, KLAWZ 2, is in the works.

Tortellini hasn't always been a photographer. Working for Bell Helicopters last year, he was first furloughed, then laid off, at the beginning of the pandemic. With nothing else going on, he bought a film camera because it was cheaper than a digital camera, and started shooting food distribution events at For Oak Cliff, a nonprofit fighting against systemic racism and oppression in Dallas.

This first project snowballed into professional gigs for the dedication of Botham Jean Boulevard in Dallas, as well as commissions for NorthPark Centre, Fiend BMX and NFL players. It wasn’t long before Tortellini started developing his own projects, including KLAWZ, an exhibition that aims to show, in his own words, how “nail art can go anywhere and do anything in any different scenario.”

“The inspiration of KLAWZ happened when I was walking down the street in Deep Ellum,” Tortellini says. “I had noticed maybe one in three women had their nails done. And I just was really taken aback, like, ‘Man, this is a very prominent thing that nobody is really zeroing in one. … This is very important that people see that these people are artists.”

He asked a woman if he could take a photo of her nails. She said sure. He took the photo, and it developed nicely. Then, he thought to himself, “What if I took a series of photos and put together an exhibition for people to just enjoy nail art?”

The original idea was to highlight the nail art of a few different nail techs, Tortellini says, because he wanted viewers to appreciate not just the art but also the artist — to see nail techs not so much as beauty workers, but as artists. But shit happens, and Tortellini changed course. At an End SARS rally at City Hall, Tortellini was shooting documentarian photographs when he again started noticing multiple women with nail art.

“I was just in a mode of documenting,” Tortellini recalls. “But I was also in a mode of, like, ‘Man, look at nails, everywhere — they’re everywhere, and they’re protesting for what they believe in, in this setting, and I want to capture that.’”

Similarly, at free food distributions organized by For Oak Cliff and at a protest organized by the Next Generation Action Network, he was able to capture images of women protesting police violence and handing out food.

“I was just showing that nails can — the same premise that I had with the End SARS — that nails can protest, nails can be in different settings, nails can do anything, they can go anywhere,” Tortellini says. “And I’ve just started accumulating powerful imagery of nails in places that nobody thought that they would be or they were overlooking it to be.

"It just so happened that the moments that I saw, they were in protesting settings. But I thought that they were really cool images and I thought that that was really important to document.”
click to enlarge A photo by Tortellini, who has an upcoming exhibition on nail art. - DON "TORTELLINI" THOMAS II
A photo by Tortellini, who has an upcoming exhibition on nail art.
Don "Tortellini" Thomas II

In December 2020, together with a DJ and an exhibition space at the Wright Art Twins Gallery, these film photos of nail art became KLAWZ 1. Around 150 attended the exhibition. Dallas Weekly gave it a glowing review.

A month later, SMU reached out about exhibiting his photography at the Pollock Gallery. They didn’t give him enough money to make a KLAWZ 2, Tortellini says, which is why he titled the May exhibition at the Pollock KLAWZ 1.5. Nevertheless, with more money and a better camera than before, he was able to incorporate more studio shots and staged shots.

“I have some SMU track runners … I wanted to incorporate, just to pay homage to SMU, just to say thank you,” Tortellini says. “They have nails, and I showed that nails can be in athletic settings.”

After the SMU exhibition, the Dallas Arboretum contacted Tortellini about an exhibition for Black History Month next year. Nothing is set in stone, but Tortellini is confident the arboretum will give him the budget he needs to do KLAWZ 2 as he envisions it. He hopes to highlight five or six nail techs and five or six designs so that viewers are not only engulfed in the beauty of the art, but also the talent, individuality and personality of the artists.

“The premise of what I want KLAWZ to become is I want it to be so big that I can highlight the artists, to be able to highlight their work,” Tortellini says. “This is all about the nail community getting the attention that they deserve. And I believe that when you look at music videos, when you look at movies, when you look at pop culture — nail art is everywhere and the nail artists aren’t getting their respect. So I want to highlight the nail tech.”

“I want to use my lens as a vehicle to get them the respect that they deserve,” he says.
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Trace Miller has been reporting and writing in the DFW area for about two years. A native of East Dallas, he studies economics and Latin American literature at NYU and works as a deputy managing editor at the Washington Square News, NYU’s independent student newspaper.