Currently, Jason has an immaculate black-line art manicure featuring varying nail lengths and shapes. He holds his hand up to the camera during our Zoom call and flares each digit like an accordion fan: “We call them party fingers — utilitarian and sexy.” Meanwhile, Maria, face framed by a shag of dark curls, is the punk-rock version of a Botticelli girl with dyed armpit hair.
The love they have for each other and the safe space they’ve cultivated on an otherwise drab downtown Austin street is revolutionary — stepping outside gender beauty norms is still a tenuous notion in the South. “I’ve been getting my nails done at salons since I was 23 or 24,” Jason says. “And every time, most places would be like, ‘So, you just want a buff?’ And I’d be like, ‘No,’ and get a lot of side-eye or people trying to pull me away from getting, like, a really slutty red.”
It’s safe to say none of the nail techs at Cute are in the business of swaying patrons from living their slutty-red truths. Their inclusive, welcoming energy is felt immediately through your mask as you step into the pastel pink salon. Cute is a clear-eyes, full-heart, can’t-believe-what-the-hell-is-going-on sensory experience. It transports you into a “kawaii disco nightmare,” says nail artist Kendall Mastin (kawaii is a Japanese term for cute).