Meet the former attorney and budding nail artist who’s mapping Philly on her fingers

Melissa Pang’s manicures are a mini guide to city neighborhoods.

Half of the Fishtown set from Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Half of the Fishtown set from Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Courtesy Melissa Pang

The sketch of Philly’s school district HQ commemorates a former job. The image of East Passyunk’s Singing Fountain honors her neighborhood. With illustrations as tiny as the tip of your finger, budding manicurist Melissa Pang puts her life story on her nails.

Pang, now 35, has been documenting her personal milestones on her hands since her teens. It’s been a big part of her world since way before she graduated from Temple’s Beasley School of Law and became a lawyer. She then transitioned to managing DEI in the legal sphere — and consciously decided not to give it up.

“When I started working in diversity, equity, and inclusion, I made the decision that I was still going to have my crazy nails,” Pang told Billy Penn. “That’s become very much a part of my personality.”

When Pope Francis visited Philly in 2015, Pang adorned her nails with teeny miters (aka papal headdresses), and when the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter festival comes around, the nails get made over with magic.

Her current endeavor is to document her city of neighborhoods.

The series started as a creative challenge posed by a friend, and now Pang considers it a love letter to Philly. More than just a tribute to the place that for the past decade she has called home, they’re inspired by personal experiences.

The Fairmount set was a tribute to a friend who moved away to San Francisco. Fishtown was similar, “because my boyfriend was moving” out of the area, she explained.

Fairmount represented in Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Fairmount represented in Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Courtesy Melissa Pang; Annotation Kira Wang / Billy Penn

After Pang finishes each neighborhood-themed mani, she posts photos of her nails in front of a local landmark complete with a punny caption to her personal Instagram @insta__pang, where friends and followers ogle over the details.

“Philly, fun nails, AND puns? I’m here for it,” wrote one Instagram user under a post from September 2022.

The most recent addition to Pang’s neighborhood nail series is East Passyunk, which maps her home base through landmarks and the things she loves. On Pang’s left ring finger sits her dark red rowhome. Other nails in the set depict the Brazilian bakehouse Kouklet, the Anthropologie-lite plant store Urban Jungle, Chinese restaurant Bing Bing Dim Sum, and other local businesses.

Icons of East Passyunk in Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Icons of East Passyunk in Melissa Pang's neighborhood nail series

Courtesy Melissa Pang; Annotation Kira Wang / Billy Penn

Pang typically freehands her nails, but tends to sketch out designs for more complicated sets, like the ode to East Passyunk.

Each manicure takes around two hours to create — and yes, her enviably long nails are real. Since she’s right-handed, Pang will put more intensive sketches on her left hand and easier doodles on her right.

“For years, I didn’t even post the right hand [on social media] because it was the messed up version of my left hand,” Pang said. “But with the Philly neighborhoods, because it’s 10 things and they’re all part of it, I’ve been posting the other hand more.”

The manicures switched from a hobby to an art form after grandmother passed away in 2019. To celebrate her legacy, Pang painted her entire family tree on her nails, with each leaf representing a person in her large family.

After embracing nail art as…well…art, Pang’s manicures were featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s 2020 “Pictures of the Year” roundup, when she painted Gritty on her nails.

“It was so ridiculous because 2020 happened — it was like pictures of healthcare workers and pictures of Black Lives Matter protests. And then my Gritty nails in the middle of it, like his face just staring out at you,” Pang said.

The intricate nails have garnered a growing Instagram following. “It’s more than just my friends I’m doing it for,” Pang said.

Next up in the series: a set inspired by Chinatown. Pang has started thinking about Washington Square West and Queen Village as well.

“I’m trying to incorporate as many different businesses into [my nails] as I can,” she said. “I just love checking out new places and new restaurants and telling people about it. I’m a big Philly cheerleader.”

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