Photos by Ibnu Aswan
How did you find yourself going down the career path to become a barber?
I learned all about being a barber from Lex Low, who used to be a hairstylist at Toni & Guy, and who went on to set up Amplitude Barbershop, where it was not only a barbershop, but a hub to nurture anyone who wants to learn the art of being a barber; we had a fresh-grad law student, and a family man with children studying to become a barber. A lot of us who were under his apprenticeship have broken out to do our own thing—52 Barbers, The Oven Cuttery, Sweeney Ted and OTHRS Barber… we all started off as his students but a few years ago, and I’m quite happy to say that we are one of the few more notable barbershops in the Klang Valley right now. Even Low himself is currently working with the government on a project called Cut X Dignity, in which they provide haircuts to the homeless and the natives, and even teach them some skills to become a barber to perhaps someday earn their own living.
What is it about the barbershop culture that interests you?
I suppose, it’s the fact that it’s more than just getting a haircut done right for the barbers. It’s about the culture as a whole, and how the people are within the community. I’m a part-time musician, and this particular culture works well for me, because music and barbershop always go hand in hand in this time and age. At places like say, New Orleans in the United States, most of the barbers are musicians as well and they would often get together after a hard day’s work to jam together. It’s the kind of culture that I would like to cultivate with 52 Barbers. Besides performing at places like Alexis and Ril’s, I host regular acoustic gigs just right outside my barbershop, where I perform and sometimes with musician friends.
Tell us something about the barbershop culture that people don’t commonly know about.
One of the many reasons that I love dressing myself up is the history of the items or brands I put on. My style is skewed towards the Mid Western kind with World War II elements, and I love the stories a pair of jeans or even a pair of boots carry with them. Same goes for the barbers; they have been around for many, many years. The very first generation of barbers started off as early as the Middle Ages during the war. Back then, they were known as barber surgeons: one of the most common European medical practitioners who not only trimmed the soldiers’ hair, but to tend to their wounds too! Because they were one of the few professionals who had access to razors, they were also expected to perform surgery and dentistry on the soldiers, when need be. That’s why the chairs you see at barbershops are shaped like the ones you see at the dentists, for the function was first for medical procedures. When the war ended, they filled up their unemployments by opening up barbershops and provide grooming service to the community. By the time the fourth and fifth generation of these barbers came about, it was also when the hip-hop scene was happening. Both these communities formed an affliation, which led to the barbershops we are familiar with now on TV and movies.
With all the barbershops that are popping up in Malaysia lately, how does one stand out from the rest?
Even though there are a lot of barbershops opening up now, I see it as a good thing, because it means that the barbershop scene is growing in Malaysia. Personally, I don’t feel like there is a competition because every barbershop should have their own identity that the public can distinguish from the rest. Each of us has our own way in terms of signature hairstyles, and we have our own way in doing things. It is very much like how each of us as a person carries our own distinct identity: how you look, and how you’d like other people to identify you. If you see a stranger walking down the street, I believe that the first impression has to have said something about you. This first impression relies a lot on how you dress yourself, followed by how you respect yourself, and how you respect other people, and in return, gain the respect of other people.
How do you think the trending barbershops are affecting the way of life for a Malaysian?
Sure, the barbershop culture may be growing in Malaysia, but whether or not the public here accept the culture in their lives, it’s another matter. For Malaysians, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to fashion brands, but we, especially for the men, aren’t in the habit of dressing up on a regular basis. For me, it’s about changing the mentality of these people: how they think in regards to something as basic as essential grooming. I believe that once that’s figured out, the local fashion scene in Malaysia will begin its proper growth.