Meet Piper ZY, the creator behind the AR manicure city that went viral on TikTok

By Monica Athnasious

Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 01:12 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

From the infamous, endless stream of new metaverses to the advancing sector of augmented reality (AR), we see the continuing deep saturation of virtual reality as part of our new normal. One artist leaning into this rapidly expanding world is popular TikTok AR creator Piper ZY. As part of her series, 100 days of Augmented Reality Art, Piper ZY debuted her unique ‘Day 12’ creation that sent the platform into a frenzy: AR nails. 

That’s right, move over duck nails, it looks like AR nails could be the next big thing. The Chicago-based artist and self-declared futurist sat down with Screen Shot to breakdown her latest creation as well as all things AR in art and fashion.


the tiny car and headlights get me every time😍. Follow to see the result. #artist#3dartist#augmentedreality#sparkar#metaverse#foryou#manicure#nailart#fyp

♬ NEW MAGIC WAND - Tyler, The Creator

Why get real fake nails when you can get fake fake nails?

The AR manicure which features an animated little city on the nail—complete with miniature cars, skyscrapers and even an orbiting moon—was the latest concept of an artist who is not bound by the material obstacles of the real world. In fact, it was the limitless potential of the virtual space that inspired Piper ZY to develop the ‘City Nail Project’. “I think a new form of visual luxury will be the level of detail that is possible outside of physical restraints,” she said.

She brought up the notion of the metaverse in her explanation for the inspiration behind her AR manicure, citing that she imagines it as a space where there would be a changing sense of scale, easily distortable materials and endless room for detail. “There is so much amazing and detailed nail, makeup jewellery, [fashion], and hair artistry out there, and I realised it can be detailed with AR as well, and then animated,” the artist continued.

It is the expansiveness of such virtual realities, for expressive and inspired creativity, that has led Piper ZY to describe herself as a futurist—a person deeply fascinated and dedicated to the possibilities of the future—and fuelled the creative flow behind the AR manicure, “I have a constant feeling of an alternative realm, just slightly different from reality, and I always want to materialise it.”

Meet Piper ZY, the creator behind the AR manicure city that went viral on TikTok

“I love to create things I have never seen before and that I imagine are based far into the future. There is something poetic to me that faraway realms we can’t [possibly] imagine do exist, but time is the distance. My goal is to express a feeling and a moment in time, whether that is in the year 2021 or supposed to be 2221,” she continued. This fascination with the distortion of reality became Piper ZY’s artistic calling even before her entanglement with AR.

She described her childhood interactions with creativity, including one in which she would mentally produce music videos and fashion shows to the sound of her favourite songs. It was the seemingly revolutionary, reality-pushing artists she grew up with who inspired Piper ZY to make the shift herself, “I love artists who push the limits of reality and create a moment from an alternate timeline. After focusing on distortions of reality in oil painting, in 2016 I started making AR outfits and concepts for my own small music video projects, but with traditional editing software,” she shared.

For those of us who aren’t visionaries like Piper ZY, it can be hard to imagine such overwhelming future realities—I mean, every time I see a metaverse-related headline, I spiral. Not to mention, I am still not 100 per cent sure what NFTs are or how they work. So, it comes as no surprise that I’m bewildered by the skill and technical development of AR. And if you can relate to that too, don’t worry, the AR artist explained to us the complex process behind the physical development of the ‘City Nail Project’.

“The project uses a target tracker to place an AR element onto a real image or flat surface. Usually, the target image needs to be quite a bit larger than a nail and totally flat to work well,” she divulged. To overcome this, “I had to bring out acrylic paint to create an illusion of flatness on the target nail for it to work, and use a thumb,” Piper ZY continued. Once she had the tracker working effectively, she was then able to add the necessary details for her city: including the buildings, moving elements and any aspects that required animation. “From there, the city nail pops up when the camera is pointed at the original nail.”

The AR artist’s most popular creation thus far has amassed around one million views and swathes of support on TikTok—with many calling for more nail designs and suggestions for the creator to enter the realm of NFTs. But what makes the world of AR so enrapturing for users? What is the secret formula for its popularity? Well, Piper ZY thinks she has the answer.

Meet Piper ZY, the creator behind the AR manicure city that went viral on TikTok

Why is the world of AR so popular?

“AR expands what kind of statements we can make and assists us in delivering a mood. It brings a cinematic and dream-like element, and I think that is why a lot of people enjoyed this concept,” she stated. Piper ZY also noted that the balance between tech and concept is important, as not to alienate an audience, “I love art that can do [the above] without AR, and in AR I think the challenge is to not overuse the technology of the medium and to focus on the concept, especially when it is still a medium that is not totally understood or known.”

However, its anonymity might be short-lived, according to Piper ZY. For the creator, AR is absolutely the future of fashion and design—one she predicted almost six years ago. “I love science fiction and I wrote a short story in 2016 about an AR future with every aspect of our appearances, communication, and advertising able to be edited and changed, seen through a direct input taking over our mind’s visual cortex,” she revealed. 

Ahead of the curve, it felt like mere science fiction for the creator at the time, but since then, she noted, technology has accelerated so rapidly that it is fast becoming a very real phenomenon. Its increased use in the industry does bring to mind “layer[s] of ethical and philosophical questions in [both] tech and fashion,” she continued. However, for Piper ZY there is also undoubtable untapped potential for AR’s sustainability in the fashion world.


I’m in a handbag help #fyp #foryou #augmentedreality#digitalfashion#artist#artchallenge#art#3dart#handbag

♬ Charmander - Aminé

AR and the metaverse

Speaking of worlds, AR fashion and art will appear as a large presence in the virtual realm of the metaverse—I mean, even celebrities like Rihanna and Justin Bieber are getting official metaverse avatars. For Piper ZY, the metaverse provides a perfect environment of unexplored terrain  that will position artists at the forefront of this exciting new movement. “I think it’s a beautiful time in art history where the ideas of artists and developers are so needed as the designers and architects of the metaverses,” she explained.

Despite the wondrous potential, Piper ZY reminded us that the metaverses are not entirely a limitless utopia for artists and designers alike. Instead, there are risks involved in the protection of your work as well as the accessibility to even create AR art. She detailed those concerns to Screen Shot, “I hope that AR can stay focused on artists and creators as a resource… I think that making it possible for artists to protect their work and build their careers will be largely up to how tech giants organise that economy.”

There are promising signs though. The accessibility is there for those that have the tech. “I made the ‘City Nails Project’ with a total cost of one programme subscription, but that could have been avoided and it can be done for free with only a typical phone or computer, which I think is amazing,” she shared. Like the endless list of new career options that followed the rise of social media, Piper ZY predicts the same transformation will occur with the implementation of AR and VR.

So, that’s what the scarily big future holds. But where does this upcoming talent fit in? What’s Piper ZY’s plan? Well, she’s got some interesting ideas up her sleeve. “I want to scale up my concepts and create larger experiences, combining as many of my interests as possible,” she stated.

“I think we as AR creators have an amazing chance to form new immersive and interactive forms of artistic media—in ways that are too abstract to name now, but will become part of our daily lives in the coming decades.”

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