The Desert Leaf — April 2013
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Barbering: The Long And The Short Of It
Claire Rogers

Ancient Egyptians liked having lots of hair, until the beginning of the Dynastic Period, when long hair was considered uncivilized, and shaving all body hair became hip. Though the idea of the beard was still cool, a real beard was just too…hairy, so Egypt’s more modern kings wore artificial, ritual beards made of precious metals.

Ancient Greeks liked woolly whiskers as a symbol of wisdom and vigor. But Romans, in part to differentiate themselves from the Greeks, shaved religiously. In fact, both the momentous occasion of the first shave for a Roman boy and the first sign of a Greek boy’s beard were dedicated to manly deities.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian came along in A.D. 117, and grew a beard to hide his unfortunate facial blemishes, beards again became the vogue in Rome.

The beards of Mesopotamian men reflected the men’s status in society. As they rose in the ranks, they combed, curled and decorated their beards with dye, ribbons and gold dust; the more decorated the beard, the higher the rank.

The men of many Native American tribes marked themselves by their hairstyle. Eastern tribes were more likely to sport a shaved style such as a scalplock (a single lock of hair on the crown of the head), a tonsure (a shaved “cap” surrounded by hair “fringe”), or a roach (a crest of hair running front to back, down the center of the head).

Like the ancient Greeks, some Native American men cut their hair only in times of grief. In the Southwest, Mojave men wore a type of dreadlocks called hair rolls, which hung down straight with the help of added clay and paint. Most tribes, except for those of the Northwest coast, did not allow their facial hair to grow long.

Beards, hair and grooming trends have waxed and waned through centuries, following politics, practicality and receding hairlines. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“If you need to find out what’s happening on the street, go to the barber,” jokes Jason Castro, proprietor of Speedway Barbers. The barber shop remains a social center, even as customers cling to their electronic communications devices.

“At barber college, they’ll tell you ‘Don’t talk about religion or politics,’” says Castro. “Honestly, what else are you going to talk about?”

Castro, who has been barbering for 14 years, admits that while he’ll work to control a discussion from getting too overheated in his shop, he’s witnessed some very productive dialogue with amicable resolutions to the world’s problems.

“You’ve got to be a people person,” says Castro, of barbers. Although he admits trying to complement each client’s personality, he credits any barber’s ultimate success with the ability to provide a consistently good haircut.

“My standing appointments— they’re my bread and butter,” Castro says of his regular clients, some who have been coming to him since 1998. He points out that a barber who knows your scalp so well may be the first one to spot skin cancer. He relates the story of one client diagnosed with skin cancer after a barber associate recommended screening because of a growth.

All barbers can probably recite the symbolism of the barber pole and its representation of bloodletting and bandages. History is just one part of what students learn in barber school. According to Castro, they also learn health, hygiene and anatomy.

“They split us up in 1745,” says Chris Gill, an instructor at Dunbar Barber Academy. That was the year King George II passed laws parting the role of the barber from that of the surgeon. But the distinctions began much earlier. Though a unified guild of barbers and surgeons was established by Henry VIII in 1540, barbers were, at that time, confined—apart from cutting hair and shaving beards—to teeth-pulling and bloodletting, while surgeons could not shave people or cut hair.

Barbers had blue and white poles; surgeons had red and white poles.

Today, dedicated students can learn barbering in less than a year, according to Gill. Part-time students will need 15 months to complete the 1,500 hours of coursework. The cost of the program at Dunbar is $7,675.

“Any man can cut his own hair,” says Gill. “But men come to a barber shop to socialize, and to get some man pampering.” In that regard, not much has changed; what Gill doesn’t mention is that trends in hair design now border on sculpture.

At the Dunbar Barber Academy, students are learning the latest tonsorial skills for color enhancements and design etching. More clients are coming in to get the latest version of a temporary tattoo: a graphic etched into a pile of very short hair, then dyed to stand out even more.

Today, men’s hairstyles are as much an expression of individuality as they are an affiliation with a “tribe.” The list of hairstyles grows ever longer as new twists are added to old bobs.

The devilock is a cultivation of the Native American forelock. The quiff , which combines elements of the pompadour, crew cut and sometimes a Mohawk, is a developing trend this year. What today is often identified as a Mohawk, or Mohican, is actually more correctly called a roach. Before it was trendy with Caucasians, it was often a porcupine or deer hair supplement for bald pates or braided hair on the heads of Mohawk or Mohican men.

Just as hairstyle is an identifier, so too is one’s barbershop.

“We’re officially the unofficial barber of many University of Arizona athletic teams because we have so many UA athletes as regulars,” says Chris Willhoite, of Hi End Tight Barbershop & Supply. UA Wildcat colors run the length of the shop, and the walls feature pennants and autographed team jerseys.

The name Hi End Tight, according to Willhoite, is a play on words to signify a higher standard of barbering. The high-and-tight is a close cut preferred by active military men.

Barbers cultivate a specific atmosphere to appeal to a specific type of clientele.

“We’re a very service-oriented business,” says Diane Underwood of D & D Barber Shop. “You have to listen to what your client wants,” she adds, as a frequent customer takes a seat in her barber chair and Underwood starts clipping without a word of instruction.

Underwood points out that she doesn’t use any colorants or chemicals because many of her clients are Vietnam war veterans, some hypersensitized by the Agent Orange defoliant chemical that was air-dropped on jungles during that conflict.

A straight-razor shave may be a receding art, but not a dying one. Underwood, who’s been barbering for 28 years, doesn’t do straight-razor shaves anymore. Castro, at Speedway Barbers does at least 10 a month.

The time-consuming straight-razor service requires softening the beard with a hot towel first, a warm layer of shaving cream, careful shaving, air drying, a quick going-over with a dry razor, skin conditioner and, finally, a coconut face massage.

“It’s a nice treat for yourself,” says Castro, who has witnessed a complete turnaround, from a guy down on his luck to someone ready to take on the world, just with a good shave.

“The hardest part is getting up afterwards,” he smiles. “A straight razor shave is as relaxing as a massage, and a lot cheaper.”

Claire Rogers is a local freelance writer. Comments for publication should be addressed to