I love winter, which is ironic because one the main reasons for leaving New York was the weather. Not sure you can really say that have a proper winter though? Either way, I love it, but more specifically I love snowboarding. Can’t get enough of it. A few years ago I used to take the camera out with every time I got on the board, then I noticed the more I got into it, the more the camera stayed in the bag. This was a big problem for me, because there was always that feeling of missing out on a lot of incredible shots. Then I started thinking about it and realized it’s ok. I’m totally obsessed with photography, but snowboarding is the one thing that I feel ok about putting the camera down for. It’s my time to just check out and not be totally concentrated on making images. Everyone should have their thing, right? Yes. It’s very important and necessary for everyone to check out of whatever it is that they do for a living, regardless of how much they love it. The below shot was made during a recent drive from Denver to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The camera still comes with me on trips, but it seems like I only end up making images of the in-between times, which is also really fun.
The box jump is an exercise that I find strange to photograph. For some reason the images always just seem boring. So why not play around a little?
Way back in 2012-ish I met the Nefarious Dr. Pugsly at his original shop in Kingston, NY. No remembrance of how we came in contact or how I ended up at his shop, but glad I did. He’s an interesting cat and his place was the first of the “next generation” shops I came across where you could feel an immense amount of pride and a very high bar for service. His cuts are next level and it’s obvious that he wants his shop to reflect that. Since our first meeting, a lot has happened with him, including a second “sideshow” shop (featured below) not far from the original. During the final push for the last book I of course wanted to include his new shop, but the only time I had to photograph it on my trip cross country was Christmas Eve. He graciously took time out of his schedule to open up and even more graciously gave me a beard trim. Thank you, Dr. !
Give him a follow on IG @pugsly_dude or check out his website www.pugslysbarbershop.com
“This is a trade. It’s not a fashion show, it’s not politics”
1) Where are you from and what did you do before barbering?
So, I'm born and raised here in Kingston. I had the opportunity to spend some pretty personal time with most of our country traveling and playing music really early on. As far as formal work, I made most of my living around cars. I worked in a pretty standard repair shop for a while. Learned a lot. Basic car knowledge. Eventually found my way into car audio and custom installs. There, the crew had pretty free run of the shop. We all built a ton of rad stuff there! Lastly i found myself in a local Kustom shop. I'll always be grateful for that opportunity, the friends and lessons I took from that time. I fell in love with metal flake, fancy cast parts, and I received the nickname Pugsly.
What is the meaning behind Pugsly?
Pugsly was just a nickname I picked up in a small circle that spread a bit, for a min there. Sounded fun for a shop name... kind of low browy? Either way, that's why Pugsly!
What did you take from building cars that carried on to being a barber?
Man, I worked in a garage with a group of my best dudes for years where we did audio by day and by night we had full range. We built some crazy stuff in that place! But we had some pretty gnarly work ethic. You've never seen more organized boxes and work areas. We got really, really involved in our install work. I think I learned a standard there that I took with me.
2) You have 2 beautiful shops that I would say are on a different level from most. Can you talk about your process of putting them together? How does it start and how far are they from the original idea/concept?
I built my first shop in last few months of 2007. At that time I was watching only a few different shops from the side lines. A couple of which were Lefty's, obviously out of San Diego via MySpace, and Robs Chop Shop out of Dallas who I had met and known personally through the car community. I was just trying to set up a very traditional, walk-in, gentleman's style environment. What I felt to be a 1940's style barbershop visually but my main focus was the product. Both the cut and experience riding the same level of importance. I pretty quickly established as diverse of a clientele as I had hoped. As time progressed minor, natural adjustment took place but for the most part Pugslys remains what it set out to be.
The main problem I found with the original business model was the wait time. I was noticing negative trends concerning client retention. That sparked the idea for shop number two. Pugsly's SideShow was the solution. A small "SideShow" of a location that would except appointments only. With a little bit of a tongue in cheek approach in coordination with the name, the decor took a little bit more of a funky approach. It might be a little bit more representative of me personally. The only thing I've seen changing and fairly rapidly with business model number 2 is the fact that SideShow started as a "small offshoot" but is quickly growing to the size of the original shop with the popularity of the more modern appointment set up. To be considered moving forward for sure.
You seem like a fairly obsessive person? And I don't mean that in a bad way at all. Quite positive actually. Can you talk about how that translates into your shops and your cuts?
So thanks? No, I think that's fair and I think that it helps with consistency and some organization within the shops. As far as the cuts and work ethic, I think our crew shares the same thing that the boys from Burts garage did. We feed off of each other. Push each other's standards a little. So it's good. I know we all get pretty nerdy about our haircuts sometimes.
3) Are there any specific factors that you can pinpoint which have lead to your success as a barber?
I try to be cool to the people that make it possible to pay my bills. I'm hyper focused on giving the best product that I can start to finish. I feel very fortunate to be wired in a manor that I take pride in what I do. I think you have to really believe in what your doing if other people are going to believe what your doing.
4) You have a great reputation for giving beautiful haircuts, but live in what a lot of people would consider a "small market". Kingston isn't in NYC, but it's also not really upstate. Can you talk about your decision to stay in Kingston as opposed to moving to NYC or LA or any other big market?
I just wanted to open a barbershop. Every town needs one and my town NEEDED one. The little Hudson valley city that I grew up in was still moving pretty good when I was a kid and until the boom we've experienced in the past decade, I'm not sure how much I noticed the down time we went through. I've benefited from it, established a clientele I couldn't have predicted, but I guess I was just doing what I knew at the time.
Would you ever consider leaving Kingston?
Absolutely... We considerate it all the time. Just not sure what really gets better then this at the moment. We got family, a cool crib, good people, the Hudson valley itself is just a rad place... it's hard to justify a move, right now anyway.
5) What kind of things do you see barbers today doing wrong?
This is a trade. It's not a fashion show, it's not politics.
6) What do you do outside of the shop? Hobbies? Obsessions?
I'm a husband and a proud father. I love cars and motorbikes. I really like paint. I play music. Vacation state of mind.
7) Where do you see yourself in 5/10/25 years?
Cutting hair. I couldn't have imagined almost 11 years ago that I'd have the support or clientele, established the relationships, or the crew that holds this whole project together. No matter where it goes from here I want to be cutting hair. I feel like that means slowing down sometimes.
8) Thoughts on the IG age of barbering?
I've made so many friends, pulled so much inspiration, and traveled both domestically and internationally on behalf of my family from Australia, Uppercut Deluxe. All opportunities presented to me through IG. All though, I feel like I've seen some people loose balance a little when it comes to what really makes their world go around.
9) Can you think of any major screw-up or failures in your life that ended up leading to something great?
I mean, I guess high school was tough for me. Not that I couldn't do it, I just didn't want to and they didn't keep my interest. But I did invest myself in other things, some real deal collage at one point even, and one of them ended up being barbering. I'm pretty happy about that.
10) Any barbers/shops out there that you look up to?
Yeah! A lot of them! I don't even want to rattle off names because I'm afraid to miss someone super important... I have been in so many shops. I've taken so many things, inspirations, ethics, personality, from so many shops... it would be a big list. But my big brother shop is Robs chop Shop in Dallas. That's the guy that popped the bubble, made me think... I should just go to barber school already.
A lot more random images from the street that have been made over the last couple months. Obviously this is the kind of thing I do in my free time, whether it’s before or after a commercial shoot, a meeting, running errands, walking the dog, etc. This stuff is totally different from all my commercial work and something I find very relaxing, so I try to make room for it whenever I’m in a different place. Not sure yet where I’m headed with all this, but it will come.
My travels have taught me a lot of things about how to live and not to live. It’s all personal opinion of course, but one thing I’ve become very passionate about is living your own life. One that makes you happy. And it always makes me upset seeing who spend their whole lives working a job that they hate. I don’t understand it at all. My buddy Aaron Straker (below images) is doing the opposite of that. For the past 8-ish years he’s been working for a company in San Diego as a senior software engineer. A job that he probably liked ok, but it’s certainly not what he loves to do. Well, last month he quit that job to focus full time on nutrition, and very soon he and his girlfriend (also a nutritionist) are moving to Vietnam to start their own business over there. At some point they will move back to the states, at which point they plan on pimping out a sprinter van and literally taking their show on the road. These type of decisions are ones that 99% of people can make but never do. I applaud him for it and hope that his decisions inspire other people to do something with their own lives.
Follow him on Instagram @aaron_straker and his girlfriend @jennythenutritionist
Joe’s Barbershop in Chicago is a rad place. And that’s a fact. Not an opinion. Maybe it’s the history or the general attitude of people in Chicago, but I really dig Joe’s. It’s got something special. Joe Jr. is an old school cat, so I loved hearing his brutally honest answers about what has happened in the shop since Papa Joe started it back in 1968. If you’re ever in town, be sure to stop in. You won’t regret it. I try to every time I’m up that way and he always takes care of me. Bastard got me rolling on a serious giardiniera habit that I can’t seem to shake though.
Follow the shop on Instagram @joesbarbershopchicago1 or on their website at www.joesbarbershopchicago.com
“You don't see plumbers wearing gold plated monkey wrenches around their necks…”
1) What did you do before becoming a barber?
I have had my fair share of jobs in my 39 years on this planet. I have done everything from selling 18 Wheelers, to doing contract work for Harley Davidson corporate, to washing cars at a Lexus bodyshop. Most of my "career" could fall into the marketing / advertising world I guess you could say. Not going to college for a piece of paper always got me in the door at the lowest level, and then having to prove to upper management that I wasn't a complete piece of shit I would rapidly move up the ranks. I hate corporate America for the record.
You sold 18 Wheelers???? How did your random jobs prior to Joe's translate or help what you do now?
Indeed I did. At the ripe age of 23 I handled the largest fleet accounts for a local freightliner dealer pretty much next to O'Hare airport.
It wasn't a bad gig, but it was more a career then a "job" so to speak. You cant just start in a job like that and expect to make any money. The older guys I worked with had been their 10-15-25 years and due to that were making a very nice living.
My list of random jobs before I started in the barbershop has definitely helped me for sure. I always say I am glad I did have other jobs before starting in the shop with my dad, rather then just going right from high school to the shop. I have had both cool and asshole bosses, had to work holidays, had to miss events and such because I had to work, etc. Plus even today I consider myself a shop barber first, then an owner. I would never expect or want something out of my barbers that I wouldn't want to do myself (if that makes sense).
2) Your old man started Joe's in 68'. Did he encourage you to follow in his footsteps?
He didn't. If anything he told me to "stay away" from barbering all together. Just like his father (who was also a barber) told him not to get involved in the trade. All I heard growing up was , "use your head not your body" and " don't deal with the public" but here I am working in the shop. My father started teaching me to cut hair when I was in the 7th or 8th grade. One day an old Paidar barber chair ended up in our small 1 1/2 car garage. I didn't think anything about it because weird shit was always showing up on my pops garage (usually to be sold in the barbershop as back then it was more stolen merchandise trading post then barbershop). But no, that chair was there for a reason ! So for the next year or so every other Sunday before I was allowed to do anything I might have wanted to do I had to give my pops a haircut and a shave. Each time he would change it up on me, as last time I gave him a #3 on the sides with alittle off the top, and now this time he wanted a full cut done with shears left full in the back. Not knowing then what he was doing I thought he was just being difficult (which he still does very well at 72 years old), but now as I'm abit older I realize he was showing me different ways to cut hair. For the next few years I would cut my neighbors hair, friends, relatives over for holidays and such, etc. I bought my first car (a 1985 Toyota Supra) off the money I made doing garage haircuts.
3) What was the transition like when you started there and later convinced him to expand the shop?
My father didn't want me to get into barbering, let alone work next to him in the then small / 250sq.ft. shop that he had called home / sanctuary away from his family since 1968. So after getting some of his family and my mom to talk to him he agreed. I graduated barber college and started full time @ Joe's in September of 2010 and literally could do nothing right (still cant in his eyes). At that time it was a two chair shop and with abit of effort and using what social media was around then we started to get busier. About 6 months in I started telling him we needed to clean up the shop abit and add a third chair (which we could barely fit). Of course this was answered with a no and a shaking of the little mans head. How could it be a good idea if his son was the one who thought it up? So after a few months of fighting he finally let me add the third chair. After hiring on a third barber it wasn't even a week before that third chair was part of the shop and we could of used a 4th. This was also around the time that our part of Chicago aka Logan Square was going through a change for the better aka "gentrification" if you wanna go down that road, so allot of young dudes were moving into the area around the shop and needing a good haircut. Fast Forward to 2013 and the shop had become a monster. We were winning every sorta social media "award", mentions in national publications, being used for tv and movie shoots, etc. Open 6 days a week with 5 barbers working 3 chairs (in rotation) six days a week averaging a 2 hour wait everyday. We extended our hours and just got busier. We raised our prices and just got busier. Sounds good on paper but was hell working in the shop back in those days. So after another year or so of fighting and bitching with the small man I finally convinced him to let me knock out the back 2 bedroom apartment and expand the barbershop to its current size. The conversation went like this:
“Dad, we need to expand the shop.
Dad, we are losing 20-30 customers a day due to them not wanting to wait. We need more barbers and more room.
Dad, Those 20-30 people leaving could be taken care of by the addition of more barbers. We need to expand.
Dad, I worked with some banks and I will pay for the expansion out of my pocket.
OK, Do it..”
So basically when I told him I wasn't needing or asking him to cough up any money to expand the place he was cool with it. Typical old man Italian. So a rough timeline is the shop was opened in 1968. I started in 2010. Added a third chair in 2013. Expanded the shop to its current 1400sq.ft / 7 chair size in 2015. I officially took over ownership of the building and the barbershop in February of 2015.
4) You're both characters and seem like pretty hard headed guys. Describe your relationship in the shop. How has it changed over the years?
This is a easy one. My father and I have NEVER got along. Not when I was little. Not when I was just starting off in the shop. Not as I write this. Not sure if its because we are too much alike? Are both super hard headed? Who knows. It is literally his way or nothing when it comes to me, and just me. He is not that way with his customers. He is not that way with my older sister. It is literally his attitude towards me and only me. Flash back to 2013 when the shop was insanely busy and I remember him and I got into it on a Friday night after the shop had just closed. I remember sitting him down in his chair and me sitting across from him and saying and I quote, "Dad, I can not work with you anymore. So, you are either going to retire, we are going to expand this shop so I can get alittle bit of distance between you and I, or I am going to drown you in the toilet by your size 6 feet." The expansion started to gain steam about a week after that. Fast forward to present day and my 72 year old father is still working four 10-12 hour days a week and is more feisty and up my ass then ever before. Him still working is really why I have the schedule I have . Working just 4 days a week in the shop and only working 2 days with him. Two too many...
How does your old man feel about where the shop is today?
My father is the definition of " old school". He doesn't show emotion, and is definitely not going to give me any sort of praise for what I have done to / for the shop. It's just how he is so it really doesn't bother me. I have seen him be that way since I can remember. The proof is in the business the shop is doing, the amount of haircuts we complete every day, the amount of repeat business we have, and so on. That's how I measure success, not Instagram followers or how many t-shirts the shop sells. Hell, I give more shirts away then I sell. I am not one to hype myself up online, post pictures of haircuts, pictures of famous shop customers, or any of that crap you cant help but see online. The shop itself and what it is/has become is all the "creditation" I myself need. A smooth running shop with good barbers and good customers is all I can ask for, and I bust my ass to maintain that.
5) Joe's is as I see it, a Chicago institution….
Tough question. I see it kinda in two ways. 1. Yes, 50 years, family business, son taking over from his father and expanding/growing business, etc.
2. No, Its a barbershop that has stuck around because the owner may or may not have been to stubborn to close it down / move it when the neighborhood turned into a ghetto in the late 90's. By just plain luck the neighborhood that the shop is in now is "booming". Barbering is stronger now then ever before. So, I am always torn when thinking of the shop as a "institution", guess it just depends on who I talk to. I can tell you one thing, barbers as of late could care less if the shop they work in has been around for 50 years or 5. As long as their Instagram accounts are popping and they are making $$$. The days of opening up a shop with say 2 dudes and having that crew around for the duration of the shop is long gone. So to answer the question Yes, Joe's is something special. And, no matter who does or doesn't work in the shop the shop itself will continue to carry on through the years.
6) How do you manage a shop of 7 barbers? What do you expect out of them?
Out of all the jobs / tasks I have had in my life up to this point the managing of people / being a boss has been the hardest. I work in my shop alongside my barbers so I try and make the shop / environment a place where I myself would want to work (as I do work there). From the expansion and more room to what's on the walls to the music being played to how well the shop is cleaned (which I do myself). Do I hang out with my barbers outside of work ? Do I not because I don't want to be seen as their "friend" but as their " boss" ? Do I play the roll of " cool boss" and let everything I don't like slide ? Do I play the roll of "stern boss" and sit down with them once a week and tell them what they are doing wrong ? Either way or direction has its good and bad sides to it. I have lost barbers due to things out my control, like how my father acts. I have lost barbers due to the shop down the street offering them 5% more per cut. I have lost barbers due to my "attitude" which is really just how I am. I have lost barbers who wanted to work in an appointment shop because that's what the cool Insta-Babers are doing now a days. So I really cant win. I have paid certain barbers more thinking they would stay working in the shop and they left. I have given certain barbers more leeway in coming in late / leaving early to try and keep them around and they have left. So now my approach is kinda the straight and to the point kinda thing. 1. This is the shop and this is how it's ran. 2. This is what your going to get paid per haircut and that's not going to change. 3. You have a job here for life if you want it. 4. If I happen to have a issue with your performance in the barbershop YOU will be the first to know. I would say that this method has been going well but I lost a barber about 3 months ago and will prob loose another by summer (have a gut feeling which I am usually not wrong about).So, if that does happen we do what we always do, keep chugging on. Everything in the shop has always evened out in the end.
7) Joe's is everything I love about a barbershop. There is a lot of comedy and you want people to have fun, but you also don't want any bullshit fuckery. Talk about that.
I do run the barbershop with a heavy hand, and I am well aware that some people don't "get" it and take it the wrong way. As I am an asshole or think I am the shit or whatever. I even made a website called " the dirty" a few years back (its still up there - just do a google search of my name) where an old customer of mine (yes I know who he is) posted a pic and article of me slamming me for being a "tough guy" with a crappy beard. Do I care that he did that ? No, and kinda take it with a smile that I got under his skin that bad for him to take his time and write that. Same as I feel about YELP reviews that say things like the haircut was great and the shop is cool but I was told to hang up my jacket and wont go back, 1 star. Atleast the haircut came out ok is what I think to myself when reading those kinda things. As said before I try and run the shop as I would want it to be as if it was a place I went to get my haircut. I don't want to see a bunch of peoples jackets thrown on the waiting chairs when we have a perfectly good coat rack. It looks sloppy and takes up chairs for waiting customers. I harp on my barbers to tell their customers to hang up their jackets but sometimes they just don't do it. People talking on their phones, people with the legs stretched out so people have to walk over them, guys wearing sunglasses inside the shop, people who waste beers, people who think the floor is a good spot to put their full cup of coffee, Men in flip flops complaining about that hair got on their feet, men in flip flops in general, etc. All things that drive me up a wall and you better bet people are going to hear about in my shop with my name in neon on it !
My first time in the shop I was wearing flip-flops and took some shit for it. I’ll definitely be leaving a bad Yelp review…
8) What do you get into outside of the shop?
I really never am "off" from the shop. No matter how much I try it is part of me. I mean I live upstairs ! But in reality I do more for the actual running of the shop on my days off then when I am behind the chair. Weather it be updating the website, social media whatever, lunch meetings with people about say a photoshoot in the shop, etc. This is what barbers don't see, the behind the scenes stuff that a good owner does to keep his shop afloat and floating higher then the other shops in the area. Sixty8 Provisional is a small male grooming product company I started back in 2014 which takes some of my time. Everything from product formulation to marketing to sales to fulfillment is all handled by yours truly. We sell it here at the shop, as well as 5-10 other barbershops and retail stores across the US. If it grows cool, if not its something to do which only compliments the barbershop in which it was created in. Sixty8 = the year my dad started Joe's. Also have two other "start-ups" that are in their infant stages that should do pretty well once their up and going. I have smaller roles in those so hopefully alittle effort up front can gain me some added income which would be nice. Besides the above I am into hot rods and classic cars, motorcycles, black haired tattooed women in heels, good food and booze with good company, etc. I have always said I can sleep when im dead..
9) Random thoughts about what you do....
I am a barber. Barbering is a trade like being an electrician or a plumber. Barbering is the oldest legal profession in the world. Barbering has put food on families plates, sent kids to college, paid for houses, cars, and so on for years. And yes of course I take what I do and my trade seriously and with respect. But, I can’t get a date to save my life on these online dating apps because when a woman see's "barber" as a profession It might as well say "doesn't make any money" to her. I love it when a customer in my chair asks, " so what else do you do to make ends meat ?" Or, " you cant really live of a barbers salary right?" . Believe me their is nothing better then rolling up to Chicago Cut (one of the best steakhouses in Chicago) in my 55 Bel-Air and some snobby older guy asks what I do for a living and tell him I am a barber. Just to watch his face go into some weird questioning look. Then you have these Insta-Barbers wearing gold barber poles around their neck and surgical masks doing backflips into crowds at barber conventions. I don't get it, but to each their own I guess. You don't see plumbers wearing gold plated monkey wrenches around their necks. Or electricians walking around with attitudes because of what they do. All trades, but barbering has something weird about it. I try and let the shop itself do the talking, rather then me myself posting every haircut I do in the shop. You don't see "Joe Jr. " stickers and t-shirts being produced but we make 20,000 Joe's Barbershop stickers a year to slap all over the world and have been since I started back in 2010. The shop is what's special, I am just it's care taker..
10) Best pie in the city?
No one in Chicago calls it "pie" so I'm guessing you’re talking about Pizza ? I like all kinds of pizza so I have a few different spots for each style of "pie" as you put it.
Deep dish = Peaquads (Lincoln Park, Chicago) for sure. Thin crust Italian style = Gigio's in the burbs (Des Plaines, IL). Thin crust square cut or "tavern style" = John's Pizzeria (Logan Square, Chicago). Napoli style = Pizza Metro (Wicker Park, Chicago).
I’m not here to debate the ethics of hunting. Whatever you believe is fine with me. What I am interested in is little slices of life that only occur in certain places, and this is a great example of that. Towards the tail end of a cross-country trip, while driving through western Colorado, I caught a small glimpse of the scene below and turned around to see what was actually happening. My first thought was they were cutting up a wolf because all I saw from the road was the tail. Turns out it’s a Mountain Lion. Where I’m from and where I live now, this kind of thing doesn’t happen. I spend a lot of time in the mountains, but have never been a hunter, so this life very intriguing to me. And the 3 people involved in the hunt were really nice about letting me hang out while they broke down their catch. Learning about different hunting techniques is fascinating, so I enjoyed hearing about how they used dogs to catch this lion and how they train the dogs to hunt. More surprising is that the lion apparently tastes good. Would like to try a piece at some point. Won’t go much farther than that as not to stir the pot.
***For obvious reasons the license plate numbers were photoshopped out of these images.
Had a great time last month shooting some trail running for San Diego Magazine. Besides being in beautiful locations, it was interesting talking to the guys who are both ultra-runners. Hearing about their experiences, techniques, and eating habits was very eye opening. Looking at these images again really makes me appreciate living in San Diego.
Bonus on this shoot was needing a last minute stand in runner for the 3rd location because of a cancelation, I was able to use Emily (wife). Eagle Rock is a very cool place that we were pumped to check out.
Another one is in the books. Can’t remember what I’ve said about these trips in the past, but they are my favorite. Hands down. Anytime there is a camera in my hand, I’m having fun, but nothing beats a cross-country road trip. Just Mojo and I and nobody else to tell me what to do or how to shoot. No agenda or itinerary, just a general goal of where I’ll end up on the other side. There might be a couple things i’m looking for, but it’s also very important to not be too focused on those things. Otherwise you’ll miss out on everything else. Learned a good lesson on this trip pertaining to the weather, which it felt like I was fighting with a majority of the time. Weather can be great for photographs, but this time around most days had skies filled with a very drab blanket of grey. No definition to the clouds. Just a blanket. Boring. Definitely not what I typically look for when shooting on the road. After about six thousand of miles of being frustrated with those skies, I finally said screw it, accepted it, and tried to just use it. The images that I made on that day ended up being some of my favorites. Lesson learned. The road has a funny way of teaching you great lessons. Yet another reason why I love it.
Sign makers kept popping into my head during this trip. I’ve always been fascinated by old signs, but this time around it really struck me what a profound impact sign makers can have on a business, store front, street, neighborhood or city. In general, it seems like signs aren’t nearly as creative as they used to be. And that’s sad. Still though, there are some very creative guys out there. And I appreciate the way a sign can make you feel. Just looking at a sign can tell you so much about whatever kind of business is happening inside. A sign can set a mood or it can tell you about the culture of the place it occupies. And over time, that sign can create a culture which further helps draw like minded people to an area. A sign can define a street. It can become iconic and synonymous with a certain city. That’s powerful.
Side note: A lot of new content was made on this trip for my barbershop project and I’ll be sharing that soon.
Long before meeting Steve Purcell I was a fan of the Uppercut brand. I just dig what they do and how they do it. The content they put out is solid and so are the people they have on their roster. Not exactly sure how Steve and I first connected but it was on the phone, and I remember later meeting him in person and thinking, this isn’t the same dude I talked to. His voice and his person didn’t add up. He’s Australian and on top of the accent, has a very happy/positive tone to his voice and demeanor. In person though, he’s sorta of a hybrid between a skateboarder and a truck driver. He owns a company that very successfully sells a line of men’s grooming products, but he himself is un-groomed. RESPECT. He’s the exact opposite of the guy you think would be the owner of Uppercut Deluxe. And I mean that as a total compliment. He’s almost as ironic as me; a bald guy who has spent 6 years making a book on barbershops. Anyway, he’s got a rad story that I thought everybody would appreciate and I hope to talk with him more about in a longer format. Podcast maybe?
Click here for the Uppercut Deluxe website or follow them on IG @uppercutdeluxe.
“It's like jumping off a cliff and trying to build the plane before you hit the ground!“
1) What did you do prior to becoming a barber?
I worked as a clean up kid in my dads butcher shop after school.
2) What was the barbershop scene like in Australia when you thought about becoming a barber and what made you take the jump? What year was it?
There was no scene! I was 15, late 90's, struggling at school and I'd always enjoyed seeing the barber with my granddad growing up. There was a job offer on the table at the local barbershop so I jumped at it.
3) How did people react when you started on that path?
Brutal! The scene was totally misunderstood at the time, it was all super salon focused and no-one my age was doing it. But I knew I could make it into something rad. Its such a heritage trade. I was the ONLY kid in Australia doing the barber apprenticeship that year. Haha. My friends gave me heaps of shit about it...would call up asking for a perm or a purple rinse.
Literally the only kid? Where did you get the idea that you could make it into something cool?
The ONLY kid. My grandad used to take me to his barber growing up, a hilarious old italian guy and I always loved the banter and bad jokes. I grew up surfing and skating so just wanted to create a space that I felt was rad, and just wanted to do it my way. I was 22 when I opened the shop, my every cent we had went into it and hoped for the best!
4) How did people react when you opened your own shop?
This is where I saw the shift where people stopped rolling their eyes at the trade. People have to physically see things to understand it. We decked the shop out like a mates garage so it was a rad place to just come and hang. Once people figured out what we were doing in there, word spread pretty quick.
5) What is the barbershop scene like in Australia compared to when you started?
Night and Day! Its awesome to see, it stokes me out. Barbering scene in Australia draws inspo from everywhere in the world- European/US/Asia we get the influence from everywhere and it merges out some amazing talent...plus our certification is strict here, to be fully qualified takes 3-4 years so you gotta earn your stripes the old fashioned way.
3-4 years? That's crazy? Is it like America where you have to go to school? Or more like on the job training in a shop?
Its on the shop floor learning, with some school elements. 4 long years!! Shitty pay and definitely a lot of shitty cuts on some brave customers who let me practise on them.
6) How do Australians view American barbers/barbershops?
Classic and traditional. Huge respect, some of my favourite barbers and shop fit outs are in the US.
Care to name a few?
So many! Don't wanna leave anyone out. But I Iove the ones that haven't been updated since the 60's, they grow around the barber and the walls have stories. My ambassador crew are dear to my heart and are amazing barbers with rad shops.
7) What prompted you to start Uppercut and how was it initially received by the locals?
It was the perfect storm, we couldn't easily access products for the shop that we loved. I have always been into mixing products together, and fascinated by the product process.
The locals were overwhelmingly supportive, and still are! We were just doing what we thought was rad and did it the way we wanted to do it.
What do you mean by "I have always been into mixing products together?" What other kinds of products were you previously mixing together?
I was mixing Oil based products with a water soluble/ gel base along with my kernels herbs and spices haha. I had a list of 4 products I would mix together and send my customers to the grocery store. My wife was always mad at me for clogging up our sinks.
8) Describe the journey from the idea to where Uppercut is now. Ups/downs/expectations/growing pains/etc.
It's like jumping off a cliff and trying to build the plane before you hit the ground!
Looking back we were so naive when we started, the journey has taught us so much and we still learn as we go. We timed it well. If we did every single thing the same way but did it later, it wouldn't have worked. We've had amazing people involved in the journey and made lifelong friends, we've also had some huge let downs, which in hindsight has taught us some of our hardest lessons.
You gotta block out the comments, everyone has opinions and if you listened to everything you hear you'd lose your mind. You're either too niche, or a total sell out. Or both! My vision for the brand has never changed, I always listen to my internal compass.
I'm a huge believer in learning the best lessons from screw ups or let downs. Can you talk about one in-particular that happened and how you turned it into a positive?
There isn't one major event that stands out. I've learned that if you can surround yourself with talented people and hire people who inspire and are smarter than you, thats half the battle won. Keep a thick skin and stay focused on your own race. People can be the hardest and the best part of business, looking back the highs and lows have actually happened simultaneously, you have to enjoy the journey along the way or you'll lose your mind.
9) Uppercut is a very distinct and tangible "brand". How did that develop? Why is your roster filled with those particular people?
Coz they're my homies! Ha. They genuinely live the lifestyles so they can't help but be mad dogs. Uppercut is a family and the bigger the brand grows the bigger that family is. The biggest compliment I get is when people say they feel like its a big ass family. Mission accomplished.
10) How do you keep the brand feeling so authentic?
Refer to answer above!! We only bring in the good eggs. Mad love.
11) Any random thoughts you want to get out....
Yes! How the hell did Tim from Syndicate get the front cover of your book? Haha just kidding love you Timmo
It never ceases to inspire me how personal projects lead to the right things. 6 years of working on “Barbershops of America” has naturally connected me with some rad people. One of those rad people is Jon Roth of Crows Nest Barbershop in Canada. We’ve collaborated a few times in the past, then a few months ago he reached out with another great opportunity. He was set to be running a “pop-up” Crows Nest at The General by Van in Williamsburg Brooklyn for a few months. And Vans was looking do some other projects involving the community, one of them being a documentation of the local barbershop scene. For which he thought of me, which I was beyond honored to be thought of for. One thing led to another and I would up spending 4.5 days walking all over the borough of Brooklyn in search of some old relics that have stood the test of time. It was such a great experience. Some of the old timers are still there cutting, but they weren’t easy to find. Everybody I talked to said the same thing “Old barbershop? There aren’t any of those around here anymore!”. They were right for the most past, but over the course of those 4.5 days I walked 55.5 miles and found some gems. Beautiful shops with owners that have been cutting for 50+ years in the same location. Some of the shops themselves have been in operation for over 200 years!! Just being in them was fun, but talking to the barbers was even better. They had so much character and stories to tell about coming to America and starting/continuing their careers as barbers. I could go on and on about this, but what I want you to know is that I’ll be having my “Barbershops of Brooklyn” show this weekend in Williamsburg. It’s going to be a great time. There will also be music, food, drinks, and free haircuts from the gents at Crows Nest Barbershops at the pop-up downstairs. If you’re around, come say hi. And hit the below link to RSVP.
I’ve lost track of what number Q&A this is, but that’s probably irrelevant. This go round is with Justin King of Rooks Barbershop in Portland, Oregon. We met a bit of over a year ago when I made these images. The thing that stands out to me about Justin is that he’s every bit a business man as he is a barber. Maybe even more so a business man, which isn’t common to see in the barbershop world. He’s got a lot of irons in a lot of fires. Good dude and I appreciate his willingness to say what he feels regardless of the outcome.
Follow him on Instagram @hellandgrace and the shops @rooksbarbershop
“In the Army, I’d bring dudes into the barracks and fade them out for a few bucks here and there”
1) Where are you from and what did you do before barbering?
I was born in NY and grew up in Miami. Before becoming a barber, I was a paratrooper in the US Army.
Did any of your experience as a paratrooper carry over into the barber world? Where did you get your business sense from?
I think my military experience definitely gave me a good foundation to work off of. It imbued in me a very strong work ethic; an ability to just “get it done”, no matter what. Pair that with an aggressive east coast mentality and you’ve got a recipe for success.
2) What put you into this profession?
Ever since high school, I wanted to cut hair. Growing up as a punk rock kid in the ‘80s, I was always the one cutting and coloring everyone’s hair. I’ve always been good with a pair of clippers.
In the Army, I’d bring dudes into the barracks and fade them out for a few bucks here and there, and when I got out, I decided to take it to a professional level.
3) You're very political with your thoughts and posts on IG, which is something you don't see a lot of barbers doing. Talk about that a bit...
I believe in using whatever resources are at your disposal to affect change in the world. My business is my primary resource and, in this day and age, it’s important that we speak our against injustice, bigotry, racism, etc. They always told me when I became a barber, “never talk politics or religion on the floor”, but fuck that. I’ve never been one to not speak my mind and if customers don’t like it, there are a lot of shops out there adhere to that ‘rule’. Personally, I believe Rooks built its reputation by being real, and I encourage my barbers to be who they are.
What have been the positive/negative outcomes of your public opinions?
I’ve lost customers over my public political opinions. I guess you could say that’s a negative. I don’t think it is. I’ve had people “boycott” my bar and other businesses of mine, but I just think they’re funny. You can’t boycott somewhere you’re not welcome.
4) When did the first Rooks open? How were you able to take Rooks from one shop in Portland to having 3 there as well as another in Hood River?
The first Rooks opened at the beginning of 2009 as a one-chair shop in a little shed attached to a pizza joint. I had worked as a barber for a few years at another shop in town and had built up a large clientele. I took a big chance, opening up Rooks a half hour away and was fortunate enough to have a lot of clients follow me. The barbering scene hadn’t really hit yet, so nothing like this was happening in Portland. I was the first shop to offer straight razor shaves and booze, and my shop gained recognition pretty quickly. After a couple years at that one-chair shop, I moved a few blocks up the road and opened a three-chair, bringing a couple quality barbers onboard from out of town. I had to hire barbers from California because there were hardly any in Portland. A year later, I added two more chairs. By then, our little shop was constantly busy and we had some really solid barbers. So, a year after that, I decided to try a second shop across town to cater to a larger clientele. A third one went in right in the heart of downtown Portland a couple years after that and the rest is history. We had become a Portland institution and a nationally-known name. The fourth shop opened up a couple years later but, unfortunately, was lost in a building fire. We quickly recovered and expanded to Hood River, Oregon just a year and a half ago, and that’s now our busiest location.
What went through your head when the fire hit?
My first concern was relocating my barbers so that they’d still have work. I can deal with a little financial blow like that but I didn’t want my barbers to feel that burden. I also immediately began thinking of the way forward. A couple barbers wanted to start a Go Fund Me campaign to help me recoup some of the financial loss but I wasn’t having it. It was my problem to deal with, not everyone else’s. I had to view the experience as an opportunity to grow in a different direction and, ultimately, it enabled me to put time and energy into opening up Hood River.
5) How do you manage all those shops/barbers?
No, but seriously...I put a lot of stock in my barbers and give them ownership in their shops. My barbers are free to be who they are, manage their own clients, handle their own money, schedule their own breaks, etc. I think the key to a successful shop is keeping your barbers happy. I refuse to treat mine like children. They didn’t pay $20k for barber school to be bossed around and make shit pay.
6) What do you get into outside the shop? Hobbies, obsessions, etc.
Business IS my hobby/obsession. I love creating something, building a brand, getting my hands dirty with the buildout process, etc. Outside of Rooks, I also own a pomade brand, a bar and a motorcycle shop. I create businesses based on my hobbies, so I’m never really working; just doing stuff I like.
7) Notable life fuck-up that ended up being a great learning tool?
Hmmm....I think all fuck-ups should be used as learning tools.
I tried many businesses over the years before opening Rooks, to no avail. Each time was a valuable lesson; how not to waste money, who not to partner with, etc.
I fucked up a lot in my life, but I wouldn’t have been in the exact place I am if I hadn’t.
8) Advice for someone who wants to take that first step from being a barber to opening their own shop?
Every endeavor requires risk. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and take those risks. It’s scary. Putting money down on a lease, going in without really knowing what the outcome will be..it’s serious, and it’ll fuck with your head. Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly. Your business has to be your entire identity, at least in the beginning. Brands don’t build themselves. Don’t be in too much of a rush. Wait until you’ve got several years of experience and a large customer base. Try not to take a loan out, even if it’s from family. You don’t want to start up already in a bunch of debt. Choose your partners wisely and, if possible, don’t have one. Certainly don’t have more than one or you’ll never make money.Make sure you know your brand, but be willing to adapt and progress. Rooks isn’t the same brand that it was when I started and we’re better for it.
Always be true to yourself and don’t compromise.
Respect your barbers. They’re your most valuable commodity.
And DON’T BE COMPETITIVE. Support other shops and keep open communication with them.
9) Random thoughts on what you do....
I love what I do. Opening Rooks has been the best thing I’ve done for myself and my children.
That doesn’t mean starting a business is the best move for everyone. Some people won’t function in that position, others will flourish.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just as honorable to put in an honest days work as it is to be an entrepreneur.
Good luck in whatever you do!
Is the barbering community in Portland supportive?
If I’m being honest...no, I don’t believe it is.
It’s getting there, for sure. But, there are still a lot of shop owners who view each other as competition, and that’s absolutely the wrong mindset to be in.
Portland is saturated with barbershops and could benefit from a stronger sense of community.
Been a long time since I’ve posted some commercial work, but here are a couple outtakes from a shoot I did for UK based fitness apparel company Gym Shark. They make really nice stuff and gave me a lot of freedom to shoot pretty much on my own, which I always love. The athlete just did his thing and I did mine. No real staging of any kind. Good times.
Seems as though I’ve entered the world of podcasting. This is something that I’m very excited about, but will also require a large learning curve on my end. I’m not a great public speaker, so the format and concept of a podcast is quite foreign to me. Nevertheless, I plan to have a lot of fun with it. Why am I doing this? Because I enjoy learning about people’s stories, how they got to where they are, and using that information to help other people learn. Specifically though, I’m very interested in people who have taken a different path. People who have real ideas about what they want to create and do so without asking permission. Hence “Screw the Gatekeeper”. For a long time I was frustrated with the notion of only being able to do certain things as a photographer if I was hired by a client to shoot that specific thing. That frustration continued for years and years, until I realized my thinking was all wrong. Why should I wait to be hired to shoot something for someone else, only to make them a lot of money and build their brand? So much of my time (this goes for all photographers) was spent hounding people, brands, magazines, and agencies to get hired. 9.9 times out of 10 nothing came from any of that effort. Which I understand, it’s a numbers game, and there are a ton of photographers out there hounding the same people for the same jobs. But what if I took all that time and energy and put it into my own thing? I get the draw of wanting to shoot celebrities and famous athletes and having your photos on billboards. But why not create something for yourself that is uniquely your own? Something that shows your own ideas, that will attract people with the same interests as you, which will in turn attract clients of the same interests? The world is filled with enough generic bullshit. There are already far too many images of the Grand Canyon and Times Square. Create something different. That statement for me goes for everything. Every profession. I really enjoy seeing and meeting people who are doing things their own way, so that’s who I will be talking with on my podcast. Could be other photographers, craftsmen, chefs, brewers, artists, barbers from my book, whatever. People who are creating something unique.
I enjoyed talking with Ricky and hearing about his headspace throughout the process of growing their business to where it is now. Like most things, it wasn’t easy and that’s important to hear. Most people just see a successful business and think it was always that way. Which can be discouraging to anyone trying to start their own thing. If they hear someone working through all the ups and downs though, it can be inspiring.
Walking around New York City without making images is close to impossible. There is so much stimulation in every direction, especially when you’re main mode of transportation is the old leather express. A couple weeks ago I walked 55.5 miles in 4.5 days, mainly around Brooklyn with just a couple hours in Manhattan. The images you see below are certainly a total mash-up. There really is no theme to them. They are an after thought. Images made while focusing and looking for something totally different. I’m ok with it though, because just the act of walking around and shooting is rewarding enough, even if the images have no intended home. After all those mile of walking, I felt a solid connection to Brooklyn. It’s a massive place and I won’t make some absurd claim that I know it, but a connection was definitely made. Thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would jump at the opportunity to go right back. Being born an Up-State New Yorker, I was able to spend plenty of time in the city, but that was mostly to party or for Yankee games. So this trip was a great way to really explore on my own without any distractions. Lots more to come from this trip in the near future. Have a whole other pile of images that I shot for a client.
Brent Ferris was the owner of Good Times Barbershop in Imperial Beach, CA before he sold it and moved to Missouri to open a Good Times out there. Brent might appear in my books more than anyone else. Prior to writing this blog post I went back to see when the first time I photographed him was, and 2012 is the answer. At that time I was somewhat casually working on this project in the San Diego area. He was working at Lefty’s back when they were still at their Cass St. location, but he is one of the Lefty’s OG’s from the Garnet Ave days. Since all that, he went on to cut at Capitol Barbershop where I shot for the first book. Then when he opened up Good Times in IB, we shot together for the second book. This past year I stopped at his new place in MO, but he wasn’t around and it was closed. No sweat. I’ll be back out there before too long. Can’t seem to find the scans, but I shot him back in 2012 on medium format film using an RZ67. A big bastard of a camera that produces amazing files.
Follow Brent on IG @b_ferris and the shop @goodtimesbarbershopmo
“We really didn’t learn much in there other than playing craps, smoking weed, and skate boarding all day”
1) Where are you from and what did you do before becoming a barber?
I’m from a small beach town on the south side of San Diego called Imperial Beach.
2) What was it like taking the jump from cutting in someone else's shop to opening your own? Take us through the experience. The good and the bad.
To be honest, I had no desire to starting a shop, ever. I started off over at Lefty’s Barber Shop with Brian Burt when he first opened the doors of his first shop on Garnet in Pacific Beach and then moved over to Capitol Barber Shop with AJ probably 8 years later. I worked with AJ two years and finally just woke up one day to a sign in a window that I had passed by for about 15 years (in Imperial Beach) that I always thought would be the perfect barber shop location, that eventually became Good Times Barber Shop. I was completely content in paying my booth rent and going home daily. But when I finally got to doing numbers on what booth rent was and what my bills would be, they almost equaled out with the deal I was getting on the spot in IB and I couldn’t pass it up!
What obstacles did you face with opening that shop? What did you do to increase business?
One of the biggest obstacles I had with opening my first shop was building it out all myself. I decided to go with pallet wood walls and man those were a pain in the ass to take apart! I literally busted my ass working at Capitol Barbershop, get off work, went home, got the kids to bed, and then headed over to the new shop and worked in there until about 1-2am. I completed the shop in just about a month with working on it daily and all days on the weekend.
3) After owing your own shop in Ocean Beach, you decided to sell it, move to the middle of Missouri, and then open a shop there. Why?
I really did it all for my family! San Diego cost of living was just getting outrageous and my family is number one! Plus, every time I visited my family in Missouri I wondered, why the fuck is there no real barbershops here?! So I sold my shop off to one of the guys who worked with me, Adam Foxworth, and packed up and left to MO.
4) How was that process different from opening the first?
It was scary! I had 10+ years of clientele in San Diego to open a shop, so it didn’t seem bad and then moved to a little country town in the middle of Missouri where I didn’t know anybody other than a couple of family members. I was like, “shit, did I do the right thing?!” It has worked out great though. From the get go, it’s been crazy busy and picking up steam every week!
5) You're known for giving very fast high quality haircuts? How are you able to be so quick yet still keep the quality so high? Why can't other people do that?
Hahaha, I don’t know who told you that but yeah I cut pretty quick. I guess I’ve just been lucky to be able to cut quick, talk shit, and efficiently. I’m kind of a multi tasker, so that probably helps?
6) What was barber school like for you? Why did you start?
Barber school was kinda like being in jail, very segregated by race and always some shit popping off. We really didn’t learn much in there other than playing craps, smoking weed, and skate boarding all day. I got started originally because Brian Burt was my barber and he kept telling me every time I’d come into Milts shop (where he was working before he opened Lefty’s), to go to barber school. I sat there one day and asked him what barbering was all about other than cutting hair and the first thing he said was, “you’ll be your own boss”. That sold me on the spot!
Can you go into more detail about all the shit that was going on in barber school? Did you ever think about dropping out?
Haha. Barber school was a trip. People smoked weed in the side alley of the school, craps were played in the back room where we had “class” and we dealt with a lot of homeless coming in the school because of our location. It was definitely a fun time though! Not much was taught in my school. It was kind of up to you how much effort you wanted to put into learning. I would always go and watch Brian Burt cut and he’d teach me stuff that I would take back to school and work on. What better time and place to practice when you’re in school. If you fuck their hair up it didn’t matter as much as when you get into a shop.
No, I never thought about dropping out. I had my eyes set on the future of what barbering was going to possible bring me and that kept me going. There were definitely times I hated being there, especially once you’re getting close to being out and you feel like “you know it all”.Haha. Then once you’re out it’s a completely different story. Your cuts have to count and be great cause you want that guy to come back and potentially refer people to you.
7) Where do you find inspiration inside/outside the barber industry?
I just love checking out barber shops when ever I’m visiting places. If I’m traveling I’m checking out barber shops. Other than that I love watching friends and rad people do cool stuff and making it happen, no matter what the skill is!
Any one person in particular that you look up to?
I would have to say Brian Burt for sure! Taking me under his wing when he had just started Lefty’s and trusted me to work there. He definitely taught me a lot on cutting hair and running a successful, clean, and welcoming barbershop!
8) What do you do outside the shop? Hobbies, obsessions,collections, etc.
Some times I feel like I do too much! I love building custom hot rods, which is what I did before becoming a barber. I’m a big collector of American vintage stuff such as flags, old barber poles, and many other random things. I grew up surfing so that’s always been a passion of mine along with shaping surf boards. Now that I’m in the mid west I do a lot of fishing, deer hunting, and beer drinking! I love craft beer which is a big part of me and my wife’s life. We visit breweries frequently and travel to find new ones.
Do you think building hot rods and shaping surf boards has anything to do with your skill as a barber?
I believe it does! As a hot rod builder and surf board shaper there’s a lot of attention to detail when your building. You need to have that vision of the build/board/haircut before you even put a tool to them and having the skills of all of those translate into each profession.
Favorite craft brewery?
Man this is a hard question, I just love beer! If I had to really dissect a brewery though, since I’m into aging and cellaring beer I’d probably have to go with Lost Abbey Brewing Co in San Marcos, CA. They make some of the most complex stouts, sours, and Barrel Aged beers around. Their brewer-Tomme Arthur, is one of the best in the business!
9) How do you feel about what barbers are doing with IG?
I’m not the biggest fan of social media so I don’t participate in IG and Facebook too much. To be honest it’s never gotten me any long term customers or paid me anything so I don’t take the time to always be posting haircuts and stuff. It’s cool for the newer generation but I feel I want to stick with the traditions of the old school way and let my work behind the chair speak for its self rather than posting it out to the world.
10) Random thoughts on being a barber.....
It’s the greatest fuckin thing I’ve ever done with my working life!! There’s so much enjoyment knowing you can brighten up somebody’s day with a good haircut.
If not for barbering I wouldn’t be where I am and be able to support my beautiful wife and kids!
11) What is your biggest career/life fuck-up that lead you to a realization or to start a better way of life?
I wouldn’t say it was a fuck up but it was definitely a change in life. I started surfing at a young age and thought I would turn pro so I moved to Maui and surfed my ass off every day and came to the realization that I didn’t want that anymore. I then moved back to California and that is when I started getting into barbering with the help of my roommate at the time Adam Fuqua who is a great tattoo artist. He’s the one who introduced me to Brian after a night of tattooing him.
Spent all of last week in Brooklyn, NY shooting for a client. That shooting involved a lot of exploration around the borough with a focus on one particular subject (more on that to come), but I’ve always got my eye out for other things as well. And basketball hoops are definitely high on the list. Have never done much city shooting for the Hoops Project, but really enjoyed it. Brooklyn is magical place. Wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time there.
Q&A number 6 with barbers from the book. There is so much to like about Al’s Barbershop in Alameda, CA, which is just across the bay from San Francisco. Inside and out, it’s a classic any way you spin it. Love this shop. Al’s still looks and feels authentically from the 50’s despite requiring a remodel before they could reopen the place. Such a small and old school joint that it doesn’t even have a bathroom. Just four walls and four chairs. There is almost a monochromatic feel to the decor and the place just makes you feel comfortable. Maybe it’s a combo of the colors, the light, and the crew? I don’t know, but either way, a very enjoyable place to be in. Joe Pollisky is the owner of it now, and there is a lot to him that doesn’t meet the eye, besides his perfect hair. His answers to my somewhat basic questions are great because they contain so much candid advice and knowledge. A couple weeks ago I was on a road trip up to Portland and made it a point to stop in and see Joe. Was even lucky enough to get time in his chair for a quick beard clean up. Thanks Joe!
Follow the shop on Instagram @als.barbershop or on their website www.alsbarbers.com and Joe @joe.the.barber
“After dozens of shitty, meaningless jobs, it’s nice to know that I’m actually contributing to someone’s image, perception, confidence, and hopefully, success.”
1) Tell me about your life before barbering and what got you into it.
Before becoming a barber I did a little bit of everything. I worked office jobs for about 6-7 years before going to barber school. I hated every day of it. Previous to that, I DJ’d at a really low-rent bikini bar in Lancaster, CA called “Snooky’s.” A close friend of mine was DJing there 5 days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. It was killing his relationship, so he asked me to cover a few of his shifts. The place was owned by alleged Russian mafia connected guys – I speak Russian, so they seemed to take a liking to me, or at the very least trusted me enough to get to work that night. Anyways, that place was a drag. I ended up sleeping with one of the dancers who then got 86’d the next night for being blackout drunk at work. I only did that for about 4-5 months before backsliding into office hell for the next long while. The entire time I was in a few different hardcore punk bands – did a little touring around the US. Unfortunately, not much came of it because I was too concerned with keeping my bullshit cubicle job than actually going out on the road with my closest friends and playing music. That’s probably one of my biggest regrets.
2) Your shop is an Alameda classic that has been around since the 50’s. Talk about how you came to own it, and you’re interest in keeping it (for the most part) the same as it was.
When I moved to Oakland from Los Angeles, I started going to Al’s as a customer. Paul Ehat, a close friend whom eventually became my apprentice (and now fully licensed barber) referred me there. Nick Vlahos was my barber. He and I became friends and after a while he mentioned that he was opening a shop in Oakland sometime soon because Al wasn’t ready to retire or sell the place to him. I started picking his brain about barbering. At the same time, I was also gathering information from Dylan Johnson, a good friend and barber that’s worked all over southern CA. I loved being inside shops, I loved the nostalgia. It just made sense to me – but I had zero skill. It wasn’t until really getting into Nick’s head that I realized the skill can be taught, it’s everything else about barbering that can’t be – the soft skills. I eventually apprenticed for Nick at Temescal Alley Barbershop. After nearly 4 years of working at Temescal, Al was ready to retire and he approached Nick to take the shop over. Nick brought me in along with his partner at Temescal – Brad Roberts.
The place was a wreck. We decided that we definitely needed to replace the lathe and plaster walls and ceiling, so once that was demo’d, the electrical was so outdated and shot, that by code, we had to replace that. Then we realized that some of the studs were dry rotted, so those had to be replaced. Then the floor had asbestos, so that had to be replaced. It took 9 months to make that place look like it did in 1953. It’s clean and simple. I think people appreciate how minimal it is. Barbering is an uncomplicated thing, so there’s no reason why the space should be complicated.
3) Each barbershop has a unique feel and different way of operating. Explain why you run your shop the way you do. How much of your personality do you see in your shop?
I think the shop is everything I want my personality to be. I feel like I constantly over complicate things in my personal life. The shop is my respite where I can’t over complicate even if I try. Al’s is staffed by my friends who see it the same way.
What do you mean when you say that you overcomplicate things?
I tend to think way too far into the future with even the most unimportant things. I overanalyze, worry too much, and I'm always trying to put pieces in motion so I can get an outcome rather than just letting things happen as they may. If you're building a house, that's critical. If you're just trying to plan a fucking weekend away, it's annoying and makes things come to a grinding halt. The barber shop is so simple and linear. Once I got over the nervousness of fucking up a haircut it became all about creating relationships with customers and maintaining a place that the barbers I work with love as much as I do.
4) Barbering has changed so much over the years. What does it mean to you to be a barber?
I think barbering is about building a community. I think what’s changed is that some barbers have put more value on their own image than their customers. In my first year of barbering I can remember specific customers whose hair I really fucked up, but they continued to come back to me. As my skills improved, they didn’t point out how much better they felt their cut was. It was just one long conversation that’s lasted almost 6 years now. Barbering is more about being a friend, a confidante, a counselor, or just a sounding board. After that, sure, a good haircut is a nice thing to give them, too.
5) There is a certain aspect of repetition to being a barber in that you spend a lot of time in the same place with the same people. Explain how you feel about that and what it does to your decisions about time spent outside of the barbershop.
There’s a level of comfort to seeing and standing with the same people every day. Even if they’re friends going into the working relationship, you learn things about them through their conversations with customers that you otherwise wouldn’t have ever known. We hang out outside of the shop more as family than friends. That being said, time away from the shop is extremely valuable. I’ve only recently come to grips with the fact that quality time apart from the shop is necessary. I try to encourage my work family to do the same.
6) Hardest lesson you've learned as a shop owner?
Leading by example isn’t always enough. You want the best for those that work with you and they’ll provide the best to their customers. Occasionally the awkward conversation has to be had so that there’s a shared understanding of how things need to run. I never wanted to be seen as anyone’s “boss.”
7) At the end of a work week, what is it that gives you the most satisfaction?
Pulling the hair splinters out of my hands is pretty satisfying. I think knowing that I made a lot of people feel good about themselves translates over to my own well being. After dozens of shitty, meaningless jobs, it’s nice to know that I’m actually contributing to someone’s image, perception, confidence, and hopefully, success.
8) Advice for someone trying to open their own shop?
Don’t ever put yourself in a place where you think that your customers owe you anything. Remain humble and thankful – provide a great experience and in turn your customers will refer their friends, family, and co-workers. Just be patient and the customers will come.
9) Anything in particular happen at the shop that stands out as a good memory?
I think it was the first day we officially re-opened. It was just me cutting that day, Paul was still an apprentice and hadn’t begun cutting during hours yet. At one point in the day, 4 or 5 customers from my old shop that happened to know one another were all there at the same time, just shooting the shit. It was what I’d imagined that barber shop should be: A place to relax and be amongst friends or at least friendly people.
10) Pet peeves?
Unreal expectations that a customer has for a barber and unreal expectations that a barber has for a customer.
11) If you could only have one tool to do an entire cut, what would it be?
I’m not the best at any cut, but I try my best every day. One tool? That’s tough! If you don’t include comb, It’d be my shears. I think an all over shear cut is something every barber should be proficient at. If the power goes out… fuck it, a nice clean shear cut is the only thing on the menu that day. The great part about it is that you can create a ton of different styles, shapes, and textures with just shears.
13) Where do you plan on being/doing in 10 years? 30 years?
Whether it’s at Al’s, or on a different venture, I hope that I’m healthy and still behind the chair.
Street photography is such a gift. You can do it any time and anywhere. Literally. No need to worry about call times, schedules, pre-lighting, or talent arrival. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of that, but this is the perfect balance. Almost meditative. The perfect thing to do in the middle of a long edit day, killing time before a meeting, or for an hour on vacation. So much fun. Most of these were done in various parts of Southern California, but there are also a few from a recent rip up to Portland, OR.