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Interview: Raven Davis Talks Career As A Black Nail Technician And The Importance Of Doing What Makes You Happy

Tampa Florida nail technician, Raven Davis made the decision to free herself from the judgement of others and become a nail tech, fusing her love for art and being able to create full time.

“As far as art, it really feels like it’s in my veins,” says South Florida native, Raven Davis. Not only is she an artist, but she grew up surrounded by artists—her mother draws, her grandmother is a craftswoman, and her sister enjoys building things. Raven wasn’t always so confident in her path. Post graduate school, she felt an urge to shift into the unknown, walking away from what she had worked so hard to achieve and freeing herself from the judgement of others. Ultimately, Raven made the decision that would change her life for the better—becoming a nail technician and reigniting her love for art accompanied with the excitement of being able to create full time.

Share a little bit about who you are!

I’m Raven Davis. I’m from Tampa, Florida—I’m sure everyone knows where that is, right? [smiling] I grew up here and you’ll hear me joking, saying I’m from Boca, which is south Florida—I’m really not from Boca. I went to school for six years at Florida Atlantic University and I really just feel like I grew up there, which is why I tell people I’m from Boca. My family is here, my siblings, my dad—we’re all here.

As far as art, it really feels like it’s in my veins. Growing up, my mom would have this notebook that she would sketch all the Disney VHS covers in. Any time we got a new VHS she would sketch it and put it in the book. My grandmother, who turned seventy does anything you can think of: she blows glass, she makes jewelry, she makes pottery, she just started cold pressing soap—I don’t really know what that means, but she loves it so, so do I. My sister can build anything out of anything. She built a couch for her dog out of a cardboard box.

It’s definitely in your veins. That’s really cool to know that it’s pretty much in the family. I love coming across Black women in industries that we do not typically dominate. What inspired your path as a nail tech?

Like I said, I define myself as an artist. I’ve been drawing, painting, and creating things for a very long time, but I think it took me a while to find out what I really liked and where I felt comfortable. I can do it, but is that what I’m passionate about? If you ask me to paint you a picture I would do it, but am I passionate about that painting or whatever the case may be?

At the time I was working in student affairs at a university nearby and I had a Black nail tech because I had just moved back to Tampa. She loved my art and just always said, “you should do nail art.” And I’m like, that’s not the same thing. I do love nails, but I went to school all this time like—what are people going to say if I say, forget those degrees, I’m just going to do nails now? But she kept pushing and finally I was unhappy in what I was doing, so I finally just said I’m going to nail school. I’ve tried other things and I didn’t like it and I always said I wanted to do art full time and this gave me the opportunity to do that.

I didn’t post a lot at first because I’m like everybody is going to just be like wow, didn’t you just finish grad school and now you’re doing nails? But I enjoy it now! I’m not embarrassed anymore.

I think that’s a really important point that you brought up, though. You put in all this time at school since that’s what you focused on, but you know—switching to something that might be looked at as, what are you doing? Are you sure you want to do that? I can see how that could make you feel, but I think it’s important that you followed how you felt. You weren’t happy and this was an opportunity for you to use your skills—your creativity in a different form. So, you get what makes you happy. How are you dealing with that now? Were there any negative views on your decision?

If my dad sees or hears this he’s going to be so upset. My dad initially said, “that’s not a real job!” [laughing] He was so upset! A lot of my friends were like just do it. If that’s what you want to do then do it.

I was working maybe sixty plus hours a week for thirteen dollars an hour for a job that required me to have a master’s. And it’s like, you require me to have these things, but you don’t want to pay me to do it. So, it was frustrating. Now, it’s more embarrassing that I did all those things for such a small amount of money and a horrible experience. Whereas now I get to do something that pays well and I enjoy it. It makes me happy and genuinely brings me joy, so I think other people should be embarrassed that they’re not following their dreams because they’re afraid of what other people are going to say.

That’s a beautiful message! It’s needed for anybody and especially during this time. I feel like with what’s happening people have been feeling kind of complacent and it’s really having them spend a lot of time with themselves and think about okay, what is it that I want? And there are some people who are where you were at one point, like “I don’t know.” And then there are people like you who said you know what, forget it I’m going to follow my dreams. And you’re happier in the end. I love that message! So, you’re a creative. You were painting and doing all of that. With your nail art, would you say that it took you a lot of time to craft your work, or was it something that came easy to you?

So, the art itself on nails comes easy to me. When I was in nail school, our teacher really didn’t teach us stuff. She walked in, gave us the password, and was like, okay figure it out. So, very interesting! I went to a Vietnamese nail school which is interesting. I was the only Black girl sitting in this class.

So, the art came easy. But the foundation was horrible because that for me was the difficult part. So, making sure that you’re prepping the nail correctly, or making sure that you’re filing the nail correctly. And still making sure that your client still has healthy nails when they want to take those enhancements off their nails. So, mainly just the education piece and applying it was difficult. They lifted, they broke, they popped off. They did all those things that people say horrible nail techs do—my nails did that. But they were pretty! [laughing]

That’s really cool! Of course, you have to learn the technicalities behind doing nails and the health and just understanding how our nail beds work and whatnot, and of course the art. So, your schooling experience—would you say that being the only Black person made your experience a positive one, or were there some moments where you kind of questioned anything?

Ummm, not really about the career but I got frustrated a lot because most of my classmates were from Puerto Rico and Cuba. They had been doing nails for eight to fifteen years. So, when they moved over to the states, they just needed a license. I know in Puerto Rico, I’m not sure what the rule is in Cuba, but in Puerto Rico you don’t have to have a license. So, when they came over to Florida it was like, hey you kind of have to do this, so they literally were just showing up to get the license. They already knew everything and I think maybe two of my classmates spoke English. So, it was frustrating because you couldn’t ask questions, right. The teacher’s not doing anything. She’s over in the nail store part of it, so I really felt like I was on an island by myself. It was frustrating and a little discouraging because you’re by yourself and you know, community is important.

You got what you needed in the end!

Yeah! Eventually, from YouTube. I paid all that money to watch YouTube. [laughing]

That’s really what your experience was…

She taught me how to polish and that was it.

Wow. Well, like I said your work speaks for itself so you’re definitely on the right path. What is it about nail art or just doing nails in general that resonates with you? Because you could have taken your creative talents and applied it to a different medium.

It’s that I get to do it every day. I think that’s the part of it that I love so much. Of course, I have my days off, but when I was painting maybe somebody would ask me to paint something every five months, every three months. You know, it wasn’t really—now, I was working full time, too but it really wasn’t doing anything for me. So, now that I get to do it every day I don’t paint as often because I think that that itch is being scratched since I get to do nail art every day. Sometimes it’s stuff that I don’t want to do, like ugh that’s boring, why do you want to do that [laughing], but at the same time you know you still get to have that communication with people. I’m an introvert so sometimes that’s tough, but it’s interesting—just hearing people’s life story and sharing space with people. If you think about it, in no other field do you have to sit that close to somebody for that long, so just learning how to manage that.

As an introvert though, would you say that this profession is pushing you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way? How are you navigating that as an introvert? Especially since it is a very one-on-one, hands on, like you’re right here job.

Yeah, so when I worked in student affairs, I would do presentations and these presentations would have seventy to a hundred people in them, so I kind of know how to shake it out. When it’s just one person, it’s a little more relieving, it’s not as stressful, but sometimes you just get tired. The most I’ve ever done was seven days in a row and one day I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to make it to day seven because I have had no time to myself. You know, you come home and the kid’s in your face and the dog’s in your face and he’s like so what are we eating? Or I thawed some food out, I don’t know if that’s what you want to eat though. So, it’s interesting because you still have family to take care of when you get home.

So how is your time management though, being that this is a profession where you get to set your hours and your time. How have you been managing your time as a nail tech to make sure that you get that time for yourself?

Not well [laughing]. I’m not even going to pretend at all. So, right now I’m in a transition period. I have been at the salon that I’m in currently for two years. I’ve been doing nails for three years. I’ve been in this salon for two years—it is a Vietnamese owned shop, so when people find me in there, they’re like…how did you end up here? With them, they’re all work-work-work-work-work. If the owners at the salon had their choice, I would work seven days a week. When I started, I was like oh I just want to make them happy. I just want to be here when they want me to be here. So, I was doing five days and then I’m like, my back hurts. My hands hurt. So, then I pulled back and I started doing four days a week and that was a lot better for me, but I also volunteer on one of my off days. I just don’t manage my time well at all. I’m working on it, but now I’ll be renting a space and it will be just me so I’ll have more control over that schedule—when I’ll work and how much time I’ll spend at work will just be based around my clientele.

That’s exciting, though. Congratulations! I’m happy for you. That’s really beautiful because at one point you were questioning whether this was the route you wanted to take. You made that decision, put in the time, working under people and now you get to really just blossom and have your own space—I’m sure you already have a clientele, but you know—build a community. That’s awesome!

Yeah, I have a pretty loyal clientele. It’s definitely a blessing because you know, I just woke up one day like you know what, I’m going to do this! And now you have these people that are part of this community and they believe in the vision that you have. So, it’s pretty overwhelming sometimes that people would believe in me even though this isn’t what I thought I’d be doing right now.

It’s amazing how those things come about and you don’t expect it. Now look at you, about to have your own space!

My office is a mess there’s stuff everywhere with everything coming in. My coworkers haven’t talked to me since I put my notice in, so that’s interesting. I mean, they don’t speak a lot of English, but they acknowledge that I’m there or they’ll ask questions, but ever since I’ve put my notice in, it’s just felt like I’m invisible. So, I’m anxious to get in my new space now.

Just keep that energy! All positive things in your own space you get to set that tone. In terms of your work, I see that you do a variety of styles. How would you describe your style and what keeps your creativity flowing?

I think the reality of the beauty industry is that you really don’t get to do what you want to do often. Somebody is coming in to pay for a service and most of the time they already have a vision. You see those posts all the time on the Shaderoom and whatever other gossip blogs, and they’re like, what I asked for versus what I got. People are really coming in with these phones like this is what I want and I expect it to look just like this. So, most of what I do is people showing me something that they already had in mind. Or them bringing something that I did and maybe I put two styles together or whatever the case may be and they’re like, I like this. But, most of the time it’s not doing what I want to do so I just make sure that I keep up with whatever is trending. I practice a lot. If I have time off or if I’m not booked for the whole day, I get to come home early and practice the rest of that time because I was going to be at work anyway. So, why not work on it and stay up to date. I think that’s important—staying up to date with what people are into right now.

You say how you don’t really get to do what you want. If a client came in and was like just go for it, what would you want to create?

Without a budget?

Yeah! If they let you just do it all. No vision.

Probably like bright colors. I really enjoy 3D flowers! So, a lot of times if you ever see my nails—most people can tell my hands by now—they’re always over the top because I don’t have this box of alright I can only spend this much, do this, do that, or they can’t be this long because I have to do this. When I do my own, I usually go all the way out there with it! So, probably like a mix of ombre, glitter and 3D—and a lot of stones.

Oh my gosh. I really wasn’t familiar with all the things you could do with nails. The show Claws that really helped shine a light. I didn’t realize it’s a whole lot of things that people do with their nails! It’s really cool to see the things they create and how far they can go.

We can put things in there, like bugs. [laughing] My sister, if she sees something really pretty she will just get it and like, I need this in my nail. We literally can do anything. The only thing I have not done so far is the aquarium nail. I really don’t want to, so I just keep my fingers crossed and I hope that nobody asks me to. And I don’t like the double tip. That’s like where they put two tips together and the nail is like this long.

What’s your preference in nail sizes and nail shapes?

I hate square nails. [laughing] I absolutely hate them! I don’t know why, but growing up my nails were square. I think when coffin nails became a thing, I was like oh, that’s me! So, coffin is my favorite. Sometimes I mix it up—I will never have all stiletto nails, like right now I have my pinkies stiletto.

I like the combinations!

Yes! You have to showcase. I always tell people it’s the best advertisement. That’s why mine are always over the top. Coffin nails are my favorite. Ombre is real classy. French was actually out of style, but it’s coming back, so that’s interesting to see because in the 90s my mom and my grandma would wear these square French airbrushed nails. I love what’s happening with nails right now.

It’s definitely a shift, but I guess that’s with any industry though. Whether it’s music or fashion. We started somewhere and it’s evolving constantly.

My best friend owns a hair salon in Tampa and I was telling her I’m happy when I got out of the game when I did because all of these wigs and lacefronts and these edges—girl, give me a retwist and let me go about my business. [laughing] It’s too much! I don’t think I could stick with it.

Currently you’re doing nails and you said you painted, but you haven’t done that in a while. What other outlets do you use for self-expression?

I do my hair a lot. Right now, it’s blue and purple, so that’s pretty cool. I think people can tell I’m artsy because my hair is not a “natural” color. I made some coasters about two months ago— I’ve been really into acrylic pure lately. So, I have been doing that. I think it’s amazing that you can put paint down and it just does whatever it does. You can’t make it do what you want it to do. It’s going to do what it wants to do and it’s going to be beautiful. I’ve really enjoyed that lately, just trying to see what it’s going to do.

It’s good to know that you’re still staying creative aside from your day job.

Definitely! For the new salon, I’m going to make all the artwork that’s going to go on the walls, so I’m excited that I will force myself to get back into some things.

What advice or tips do you have for up-and-coming nail techs?

Don’t quit. You, oh my goodness…it’s difficult. It looks easy and I know people say it’s easy. It’s not. So, just don’t quit. Keep going. Keep learning. There will never be a time where you can’t learn something new. So, just make sure that you stay motivated and find the community of people that also understand what it means to work for something—they don’t have to necessarily be into nails. I think in our current generation everything is so quick and it’s in the palm of your hand in seconds, so I would advise just taking a step back and realizing that you have to put time into this if you want to build a career out of it.

I’ve noticed that—especially on Instagram because that’s where I see a lot of creatives, but there are a lot of self-taught nail techs. What is your view on being self-taught and having more of a technical experience with schooling, or is there even one outweighing the other?

As far as self-taught, sometimes I don’t really know what that means because I did go to school, and in the state of Florida you have to complete 240 hours at an institution and take a state board test in order to become certified. I know that’s not true everywhere. But I did go to school, whereas I learned most of the things that I learned on YouTube, does that mean I taught myself or does it mean that I learned it on YouTube? Because there are some things that I learned by trial and error, but I say I went to YouTube University to learn how to do nails—not that I taught myself because I definitely had some help along the way.

If there are people that are out there figuring it out without watching YouTube or watching anybody else—not really sure how they do that. I say congrats to you. I think it’s more of a bragging right to people to say well, I taught myself. I think it’s important to learn from other people, so I would never say I taught myself. I did have to self-start, but I learned stuff from watching the people next to me and from watching people on YouTube. I really think it’s a community thing. So, I don’t know—I don’t know if I would strive to say I taught myself how to do it.

Also, I would say it is difficult if you are going to go into a salon. I think it’s important to have that experience. I learned a lot about speed and just dealing with a lot of the issues that come with doing nails—how you should handle if somebody chips a nail, if they break a nail, if they come back in three days and all of their nails are gone—those are things that you learn in a salon atmosphere and so I appreciate my experience being with multiple technicians at the time.

I would say be cautious. When I was in nail school my teacher always said, “because you’re Black you need to find a Latin shop, Black salon, or you need to do your own thing. You’re not going to get anywhere in a Vietnamese salon.” And so, I was like, what? And she was like “because you’re Black” like, we have to acknowledge—my hair was bright red then—that “there are some spaces in this industry that you will not be welcomed in.” I ended up in the salon that I’m in because there was a sign and then I was like she already told me I’m not going to get hired there, but I felt this tug—nah, you should go ask. I asked and they interviewed me. One of the owners said, “I know you’re nervous. You’re welcomed here.” I was like, what do you mean? And he was like, “you know there are no Vietnamese salons with Black technicians.” I’m like yeah, I know that, and he’s like, “and you know that if you went anywhere else you probably wouldn’t have been hired,” and I’m like, yeah, I know. So, I mean—I’ve had people cut my brushes. I’ve had people mix my monomer with things so that my nails pop off—and all of those were opportunities for me to say you know what, I’m not even going to do this anymore. And then that goes back to what I said earlier—don’t quit.

So, realize you will deal with some of the racism that we mostly deal with every day, especially with being in the south and you just keep your head up and you keep moving. But there are some difficult spaces to navigate in this industry especially since we are not the majority.

It’s definitely an Asian dominated industry. I even see a lot of white people in these spaces, but rarely do I ever see Black people. I think you should definitely keep doing what you’re doing. I’m excited for you to be having your own space where you’ll get to create that community—because there may be some aspiring nail techs that might look to you as inspiration because they didn’t see that. So, their experience can be a little more positive from what you had to go through, but yeah, I wish you the best. I’m definitely going to be following your journey. If I’m ever in Florida, I will be stopping by. How can we stay connected with you?

I am Signed By Ray on everything—Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter—everything is Signed By Ray, so it’s really easy. 

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