Creative cutters have designs on clients' heads - and social media

khopkins@adn.comDecember 22, 2012 

The moon was half-full above Fairview and the Miami Heat were out-rebounding the New York Knicks on five wide-screen TVs in Maritza's Barber Shop.

"Booooom!" The room erupted with a Knicks 3-pointer, the barbers delivering color commentary in machine-gun Spanish. Clippings drifted to the hardwood floor.

"I'm thinking about shooting a video here," said Anchorage rapper Micah Johnson, also known as Jak Frost. Like dozens of other regulars, Frost comes to Maritza's whenever he needs a design, picture or phrase shaved onto his head.

A sports-themed barber shop sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and convenience store on Ingra Street, Maritza's is forging a reputation in Anchorage and online as a player in the bubbling "hair art" movement. For $30 to $50, owner Willy Ruiz or two other barbers will use water, conditioner and a straight-edge razor to shear artwork on your scalp.

Ruiz has shaved stars and tribal designs, flames and sports logos on countless Anchorage noggins over the past six years. He's drawn the face of Jesus, crowned in thorns, on the head of a Puerto Rican transplant. He cut the face of a frowning grizzly bear into the hair of a junior high football player, while basketballs in nets and phrases -- "Go Bears!" or even "R.I.P. Mom" -- are favorites.

The shop shares photos of the work with thousands of followers on social media. Like-minded barbers and customers retweet the designs like sneaker collectors swap photos of the latest Jordans or tattoo artists praise one another's newest tat.

It's another visual medium winning new audiences on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

"Hair art, the culture, has been sort of an underground thing for the past two to three years. But now I would say it's really starting to become mainstream quite quickly," Lee Resnick, creator of the New York-based website Barbershopconnect.com, said later in a phone interview.

Resnick has featured work by the Maritza's barbers on his website, alongside photos from salons from Ecuador to Ontario.

"I didn't even realize they were from Alaska," he said.

Among the recent "hair art" designs that headlined Resnick's website were a nearly photo-realistic portrait of Dr. Dre, a picture of Marlon Brando as "The Godfather" and the face of "Star Wars" baddie Darth Maul, complete with three-dimensional "horns" made out of hair. In May, a San Antonio school suspended a 12-year-old boy after a barber shaved the image of Spurs forward Matt Bonner onto his head.

This is a thing, in other words. A subculture.

Inspired by tattoo art, the trend exploded in Southern cities and areas with large Hispanic populations such as Texas and Florida, Resnick said.

For Ruiz, it began with the "Mortal Kombat" dragon in Puerto Rico.

 

STARTING YOUNG

Now 32, Ruiz was 13 years old and growing up in the small coastal city of Mayaguez when the fighting game was big in arcades. He was already skipping school to cut hair when he shaved the game's circular logo one day on a classmate's head. Instant middle school fame.

When a storm destroyed his family home in 1999, Ruiz moved to Chicago. He cut hair in Humboldt Park with his cousin Giovanni Chimera, who now works at Maritza's too.

Teresa Padilla, Ruiz's wife, translated this story from Spanish as the Knicks game continued on the TV behind her. The hardest part, Ruiz said, was saying no to customers who wanted gang symbols such as crowns and dragons shaved in their hair.

"That's the only thing he doesn't do," Padilla says.

After a vacation in Alaska, Ruiz moved his family to Anchorage, working at local barbershops before buying Maritza's -- named for a former owner -- about three years ago, his wife said.

One of the fastest-growing minority groups in the state, with a population growth of 52 percent between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics account for about half the customers at Maritza's, Padilla says.

Once, a doctor from Providence Alaska Medical Center came to the shop because he'd lost a bet. He asked the barbers to shave his beard into the shape of a monkey's tail, Chimera said. Imagine the tail starting at one sideburn and looping around the mouth to form a curly mustache.

Many University of Alaska Anchorage students are regulars. So are soldiers and airmen from nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and high school ball players.

The walls are Chicago Bulls red and Chicago Cubs blue, lined with NBA posters and baseball pennants.

Picture a sports bar for haircuts.

At least two other Anchorage barbershops or salons also offer complex shaved-design work, the Maritza's barbers say. Ruiz performs about 100 haircuts a week, of which about half are complex designs such as football team mascots and portraits.

 

'HAIRCUTS ON FACEBOOK'

Despite the recent surge of popularity in so-called "hair art" designs, it's been nearly 20 years since Ruiz began shaving pictures of the Puerto Rican flag in hair and he had begun to grow weary of routine design work. That changed when the shop started sharing photos of the cuts on social media. The instant feedback and high stakes of a broader audience made it fun again, his wife said.

"There's people who come in asking now, 'Oh who's the guy who does the haircuts on Facebook?' " Padilla said.

The shop's Instagram feed, @williyo, has more than 6,000 followers, with each new design baiting hundreds of "likes" and an immediate peanut gallery of remarks:

"Dope pics son. Alaska go hard." And, "Is this the illest dude in Alaska?"

The same sort of thing happens on Facebook (facebook.com/maritzasbarbershop) and Twitter (@maritzas_barber), though in smaller numbers.

Resnick, the Barbershopconnect founder, said barbers like Ruiz sometimes compete live for the best design at major hair shows. He's working on a reality show about the phenomenon called "Barber Battles" for the CW Television Network, he said.

Big and jocular, but soft-spoken and shaky on his English, Ruiz would rather teach than duel. He bought a GoPro camera and has been wearing it on his head as he shaves designs, collecting first-person footage for an iPhone app he hopes to launch with a partner -- a kind of how-to video series for aspiring barbers.

"A friend of his on Instagram has an app already and sold 25,000," Padilla said.

On the TV: another 3-pointer. Another outburst. The Knicks sharpshooters were killing the Heat. "Los asesinos," someone says.

Ruiz returned to his barber chair, clippers whirring. He squinted at his mirror, looking for another angle on the cut. Johnson, the Anchorage rapper, waited by the television for a barber to finish a trim for his son.

"(It) gives you that Lower 48 feel. East Coast, Miami, New York feel in here," he said.

Johnson comes to the shop to have his stage name carved in his hair before shows. When his song "Givin Up" made waves on local radio, one of his first stops was the barbershop.

He pulled out his phone to show the picture: "No. 1 on KFAT" was etched across his head.

 

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

   

Anchorage barber Willy Ruiz has been attracting attention for his creative haircuts at Maritza's Beauty Shop in Fairview. Ruiz uses a straight razor to shave designs into his clients' hair. He talks about his style and shows some examples in the above video.

 

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