Travel inspires tiny nail art painted by Katalina Sanchez of Graffiti Nail Salon

In a partnership with Midwest Mujeres, WPR’s “Wisconsin Life” shares the stories of six women of color working to build community and better themselves in southern Wisconsin.


Katalina Sanchez of Madison has always been interested in art. Her mother noticed this early on. So, when Sanchez was in middle school, her mom sent her to New York City to spend time with a friend who created large, spray paint murals. 

We had about three murals that we had to work on. We went to places that were kind of vandalized, not very welcoming, you know, offensive words, that kind of thing…and we’re making it into something beautiful,” said Sanchez. “I just thought it was so inspiring that you can take whatever you have and always make it better.”

A before and after photo of a mural that Katalina Sanchez helped paint during a trip to New York City. (Courtesy of Katalina Sanchez)

A before and after photo of a mural that Katalina Sanchez helped paint during a trip to New York City. (Courtesy of Katalina Sanchez)

This trip would change the course of her life. She talked about this as part of a storytelling partnership with Midwest Mujeres in Madison.

Sanchez would carry that inspiration from the murals with her through the rest of her teenage years, which weren’t always easy.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t always been proud to identify as Latina. Growing up, my biological father, who was Latino, wasn’t in the picture, and it made it hard for me to understand my culture and be proud of it. Growing up, I felt that I never fit in anywhere. I didn’t fit in with the Latinos at school because I was I didn’t fit in with the Latinos at school. I was too white because I didn’t speak Spanish or understand it.”

She said she bounced around schools and struggled to find her place. Eventually, Sanchez dropped out of high school.

“I just wasn’t myself. I wasn’t doing anything. I’m someone who always needs to be doing something and be proud of myself.”

To turn her situation around, she went to Madison College and got her GED.

When plotting her next move, Sanchez would reflect back on that trip to New York and how happy she was creating art. So, she enrolled in Elite Nail School.

I didn’t go to cosmetology school because I already knew right from the jump that I didn’t really want to do hair,” said Sanchez smiling. “What really inspired me with nails is that I can incorporate my creativity and art into it.”

Now, she specializes in nail art, creating colorful, detailed sets on tiny, personal canvases.

“It took me a little bit to get the hang of it, but it’s just something that I’m very passionate about and I love doing,” said Sanchez. “It makes me feel good, makes my clients feel good. It’s a way for people to express themselves. It’s a great thing.”

Sanchez got a job in a high-end salon. But, it wasn’t a great fit. So, she took a risk and opened her own business: Graffiti Nail Salon.

The name is inspired by that life changing trip to New York earlier in her life.

When I was working for the (high-end) salon, I thought people were coming there because of the atmosphere. It was a very high-end luxury salon. When I went off to my own place, it was just an office suite. It wasn’t even like a salon-style suite,” she said. “But it made me feel very good to know that people are coming to me because of me. They like my work and they know that I take pride in what I do.”

Katalina Sanchez on the UW-Madison campus just before recording her

Katalina Sanchez on the UW-Madison campus just before recording her “Wisconsin Life” and Midwest Mujeres story on April 13, 2023. (Angela Major/WPR)

And her favorite part of the job?

“Not only is it empowering (clients) through their nails and making people feel better about themselves, but I also get to meet a lot of different people from all different stages and walks of life. I meet young people. I meet like older people. I meet so many different people and they just teach me so many things about life,” said Sanchez.

A set of nails can take her hours, plenty of time to get to know her clients.

“I actually do have a sign inside my salon that says, ‘Welcome to your therapy appointment, I mean your nail appointment,’” said Sanchez laughing.

She says her evolution from insecure teen to business owner has been empowering.

“I just feel like my identity has been something that I’ve always kind of struggled with. Now that I’m a little bit older, I really do take pride in being Latina,” said Sanchez. “I think being around other people who are comfortable with themselves and being in your community of people who are like you … When you’re around a lot of negativity and people who don’t want to see you do good in life, you start to believe those things. So, finding my place in a good group of people to be around has really helped me.”

Graffiti Nail Salon owner Katalina Sanchez shows off nail polish options. (Photo by Courtney Terry Photography)

Graffiti Nail Salon owner Katalina Sanchez shows off nail polish options. (Courtesy of Courtney Terry Photography)

Not only is she more confidant, but she’s also resilient. In November 2023, her business, Graffiti Nail Salon, experienced a devastating fire. Everyone was safe, but she lost everything.

“After losing everything I had worked so hard to build, I still didn’t give up on my dreams and passion. I love doing what I do, and I won’t let anything stop me or stop me from pursuing my dreams,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez’s community rallied behind her to help her get her business running again. She said her clients provided her with an “overwhelming amount of support and love.” One even created a GoFundMe to help her financially. Some people and businesses donated supplies. The owner and director of Elite Nail School, Georgi Halverson, provided support for Sanchez by allowing her to work out of the nail school and provided products and supplies “without hesitation.”

Sanchez said the community support meant everything to her during the difficult time.

“It’s one thing for me to see my own passion and talent, but to know my community has my back and wants to see me succeed is another level of support I could’ve never imagined,” she said.

In early 2024, Sanchez moved into her own space, right next to the former location that burned down. She’s energized to move past the difficult time and focus on creating tiny works of art for her customers.

Katalina Sanchez of Madison shared her story with us as part of a partnership with Midwest Mujeres in Madison. “Wisconsin Life” has partnered with the organization to share stories of women who live in southern Wisconsin.

The Midwest Mujeres cohort just before recording their stories for Wisconsin Public Radio's

The Midwest Mujeres cohort just before recording their stories for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life” on April 13, 2023. (top l-r) Yazmin Lopez, Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, (middle l-r) Araceli Esparza, Angela Morgan, Katalina Sanchez, (bottom) Samantha Green. (Angela Major/WPR)

Midwest Mujeres

Midwest Mujeres

Midwest Mujeres Inc. is a mentorship collective for multicultural women’s entrepreneurial or career growth. They focus on storytelling, networking, mentoring, marketing, and helping Latinas build their platforms to close the wage gap for all women. The organization, led by founder and CEO Araceli Esparza, has partnered with “Wisconsin Life” to…

Maureen McCollum

Maureen McCollum

Maureen McCollum is the host and producer for “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio and the “WPR Reports: Uprooted” podcast. Her work has appeared on NPR and has been honored with national and regional awards. She loves live music, the bluffs along the Mississippi River and eating too much cheese.

Brad Kolberg with his daughter at Miller Park.

Brad Kolberg

Brad Kolberg is a radio producer and engineer from Stoughton, WI.  He likes to take time for his wife & daughter, The Brewers & Packers, music & beer discovery, and running down a trail somewhere out in the woods of Wisconsin.

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