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'If we are creative, we can solve problems'

Katy Dawe, Founder
Katy Dawe, Founder

Art Against Knives is using the power of nail polish and glitter to connect with at-risk girls in Barnet. Neil Baker drops in for a manicure.

“I don’t paint nails,” says Rickardo, firmly. At six foot plus, with the physique of a boxer, you wouldn’t argue with him. Yet here he is, in a world of glitter, running a community nail bar for teenage girls. “I’m just doing a job for young people who need it,” he explains.

Rickardo is project manager at Vale’s Nails, which started life as a pop-up venture on Barnet’s Strawberry Vale Estate (hence the name) in 2014. Last year it moved to an arcade of shops in North Finchley. Inside, bright yellow chairs surround five Formica tables; on each one, pots of false nails and bottles of polish in every colour one could want.

Anyone can drop in after school on a Monday for some free nail love. And at the same time, they can get help with many of the worries that young women in London face, from housing to domestic violence to sexual health. They can get advice, too, on paths to education, employment and training. As Rickardo says, “It’s about reaching people who are hard to reach. Nails are just a tool.”

The nail bar is popular with the local community. Eve, 86, visits every fortnight. This evening she’s having her nails painted aqua-green, with lilac blobs. “They are good girls, so I give them a free hand to do what they want,” she says. As the varnish goes on, Eve reminisces about her love of bowling, life as a dental nurse, and the husband who died three years ago. “I love coming here,” she says.

Painting Eve’s nails is Katy Dawe, founder and creative director of Art Against Knives, the organisation behind Vale’s Nails and the Dollis Dolls Nail Bar, a sister scheme based on the Dollis Valley Estate, also in Barnet. Katy was a textiles student at London’s Central Saint Martins art school until 2008 when her friend, 21-year-old Oliver Hemsley, was stabbed in a random street attack.

To raise money for Oliver, who survived but was left in a wheelchair, and to raise awareness of knife crime, Katy and friends organised an event called Art Against Knives. To their surprise, it gained support from some of the biggest names in art and fashion. Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Banksy donated work.

The success of the event inspired Katy to develop Art Against Knives into a charity. Her mission is to bring together creative artists, local communities, and people needing support – especially those at risk of violent crime.

Being creative is as much about thinking differently as it is about making art, she says. “If we are creative, we can solve problems – we can create more and be open to new challenges.” Young people involved in its projects learn to express themselves, find their voice, work with each other. “But the most important thing we are teaching is how to be creative in life – that’s the most important skill to have.”

Around 20 to 30 girls visit Vale’s Nails each week, from a network of over 300. They hang out, get their nails done. Some use a quiet corner to do their homework. Once they feel comfortable, they start to disclose what’s going on in their lives. “It ranges from difficult times at school through to domestic abuse. Some face extreme issues,” says Katy.

One of them is 16-year-old Elise. She started coming to Vale’s Nails three years ago, now she helps out in her spare time, when she’s not studying at Barnet College or working at JD Sports. She listens to the girls and counsels them as she does their nails. Some are as young as ten.

“I like working with young girls because I have come from a high crime background, I’ve met a lot of people who have struggled,” she says. Elise plans to be a social worker or a youth worker. She’s already looking at university courses, working out how many UCAS points she needs.

Youth work appeals because it’s enterprising, she says. Elise wants to get a community project going. She already has her own clothing brand and names a boxer and some rappers who wear her hoodies and t-shirts. The next step is to get a license so she can sell at street markets. “They say I’m a role model because I’ve not followed the path that a lot of people have followed,” says Elise.

By 5.30 Vale’s Nails is packed. Squeezed into a corner, another young girl is getting her nails done, deciding which glitter to choose. She’s maybe five or six years old. Her stylist recommends pink. It’s project manager Rickardo. “I thought you didn’t paint nails,” I say to him. “When you see a need, you just have to step in,” he replies.

Vale’s Nails has received support from the The London Community Foundation. For more information:


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