Chicago CLassic fades
by Alonzo Avila
photographed by Terence Guider
The Windy City—Chicago, is rich in culture and full of soul. Known for its architecture and delicious deep-dish pizza, it's like a liberal art-hive that journeys through the city’s transit Loop, unable to escape the deathly shadow of its infamous South Side. And with a surreal backdrop of ever expanding access to guns in America and a society seemingly paralyzed in the face of these horrors, sometimes it's the people on the ground floor, the ones who are just living their day to day lives in the city they’ve always called home who step up to the plate regardless. It is a city demanding justice for those impacted by gun violence. Today’s journalists and historians debate whether ‘90’s Chicago was more violent in comparison to the past eight years.
But what’s the solution? A subculture in Chicago chose activism as their counter response. Who are they? A generation of leading barbers determined to show humanity in their own communities. These barber-prenuers are not just cutting to make more than minimum wage. They are using their business platforms and culture to shape their communities by addressing the inescapable social conflicts all around them. Their compass goal is to spread love in the North Side, East Side, West Side, and South Side, and finally change the headlines.
Both during the infamous era of organized crime and again in the late 1990’s, barbershops in Chicago had a very bad reputation. Parlors and haircut shops were tainted as a place where gangsters went to discuss their shady business negotiations. A grooming haven where men could speak to other men without any limits or restrictions. The increase of city gang-crime resulted in a division of family-oriented barbershops and enforced segregation even further. Flash forward to 2018, and the Chicago Tribune reported more than 400 homicide deaths in the city. The youngest victim never celebrated his first birthday. Among other injustices, the U.S. is struggling with an epidemic: homicide violence.
One of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood communities, Englewood, has been highly publicized for its violent reality. Chicago natives have unfortunately compared the streets of Englewood to a cemetery. Quietness lingers. The dramatic decrease of population was the result of death and gentrification. On Sunday, October 21st, 2018, a city barber was shot to death in front of his daughter. But the devastating homicides in Englewood and neighboring Chicago communities have motivated activism and peaceful protests demanding for change.
On 63rd Street, right off of Racine (that’s in Englewood) you’ll find Powell’s Barber Shop.“You cannot be a gangster and be a barber. You’re always in the same place,” advised barbershop owner and DGA member, Sunni Powell. When you walk into Powell’s, you feel warm and welcome, like you should remove your Nikes before doing anything else. It feels like home. The brown paint, the Bear’s football game on, the books along the window bench and life advice quotes on the walls; it all makes you feel protected. If you’re not black and somehow get lost in Englewood, just go to Powell’s and get a haircut.
While cheering for Tarik Cohen, the 5’6” Chicago Bear’s running back, Sunni spoke about a non-profit charity event that he led back in July 2016, The Barber Cease Fire Movement. “I wanted to set a precedent for peace. All the barbers came together to give free haircuts for the kids, and to show the whole world what peace looks like in our community.” The spirit of the non-violence action movement encouraged Chicago barbers to speak about peace to their clients.
Sunni highlighted the importance of human connection and conversation when it comes to a barber and his clients, “If you don’t have a barber license, then you shouldn’t be educating. Barbers set the bar for themselves. If you see yourself as a professional barber, then you’re a barber. I don’t want to be the next leader. I want to set up the next leader. My job is to fix your personality. I want to make you feel confident. Make you a king.”
Sunni continued, “Black barber culture is the foundation of black-American businesses. This cultural thing. This cutting hair for people who look like you or for anyone who needs a haircut. Whether it be for style or a health thing, it’s precious for black culture.”
In June 2018, Sunni helped relaunch The Barber Cease Fire Movement, and commits to make it a recurring event each year. His passion for spreading knowledge and petitioning for peace has captured the attention of humanitarians, entertainers, and most importantly, the Chicago Police Department. As of late, the community of Englewood is in the process of gentrification. There are homes being rebuilt, streets under construction, and new retail job opportunities available.
This South Side community has formed an organization of leaders to rise together and create positive change for the next generation. “It’s called Englewood Rising. It is a form of gentrification, but it also could be called, revitalization. We’re not leaving. No one should be running from change. We shouldn’t run from change. We should be involved. Our black culture has been stripped from so much already. We are not going to win by lying, stealing and killing. The neighborhood is just changing. It’s a blessing of change. It’s sad because people are choosing to move away, instead of evolving with the community.”
In May 2016, a horrific act of gun-violence took place inside Powell’s Barber Shop which shook Sunni and the entire community. Sunni chose to stay open, knowing business would never be quite the same. He continued using his space to encourage children to be independent thinkers by inviting Chicago artists to perform for the community. His infectious goal is for other cities to do the same. For his leadership and empathy, Sunni was awarded a grant from the city of Chicago to reopen a new barbershop in the urban neighborhood.
“—Little man! They be so mad at him. Holding that mother fucker with all his heart. Look at him! I want to meet him,” Sunni yells at the television screen as Cohen protects the ball from the Jets defense. The Englewood barbershop owner and peaceful rights activist promises to lead his barbershop and community to victory. Sunni Powell is not just a barber. He is Englewood’s own running back.
Like all sports, there’s plenty of space for All-Stars in the Chicago scene. In the modern-day business of barbering, cosmetology studies and gender-neutrality expression has transcended many careers and barbershops around the world. And when it comes to hair, artistic freedom will always be encouraged.
In fact, there are those who believe some barbers should be praised and honored equally to the legendary artists of the 20th Century. Hair graphic artists are the most beloved barbers in the industry. Miguel Rosas, a Rock Island barber, uses his artistry to educate the barber youth and the world.
“Professional barbers play an important role in their own communities. They inspire,” Miguel stated. In the early beginnings of Miguel’s career, he had a vision to not only become a barbershop owner, but to show the world that being a barber was not just a job. He has reached barber fame with his hair portraits. His paint brush is a Wahl tool. “I opened a barbering school. New Style Hair Academy. I’m changing lives. That makes me feel so good,” Miguel shared.
Miguel Rosas is just one example of where a barber with a strong vision can go. His captivating hair murals of Chicago’s star-athletes have captured the hearts of many city natives and garnered his own fandom. Like the many professional barbers across the country, Miguel is aware of the few barbers doing harm to the culture by not obtaining a barber license or simply not respecting the hustle. With his fresh designs and through social media, Miguel is committed to educating millennial barbers on how to respect the craft. “I started cutting my own hair when I was 12. At 19, I was working at a salon and raising a baby. Later, I developed my own clientele. I dropped out of community college because I already knew what I wanted to do. Now, I’m self-made. A lot of people can’t say that.”However, in the barbering community, social media is a double-edged razor. Some of these mobile barbers have gained success through social media praise. A mobile barber may not even be associated with a barbershop at all. It is considered freelance. Think Lyft—but an actual person is showing up to line your forehead. Mobile barbers come with a lavish menu and are known to have a long list of clients and entertainment connections.
Many barbershop businesses have adopted this new barbering wave using phone apps, but the downside is not knowing if the barber is professionally licensed or not. This new wave of thirst trapping has blindsided the barber youth. A barbering career mirroring Miguel Rosas’ or some other successful YouTube barber has disrupted the culture of the movement, and the O-G-barbers are not having it.
“It’s like what’s going on in hip-hop. You know? These new barbers are not giving homage. Mumble barbers are coming in hot in this industry,” joked Juan Acevedo. A North Side Chicago barber, Juan has been cutting hair for twenty-two years. His started out wanting to help his mother with the bills, and well, he found something he was passionate about.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have a male figure in my life. When I found out dudes were cutting hair, it changed my life. The Fade Factory barbershop, those barbers were my role models. They were my ambition. I’m Superman because of them. I started cutting hair when I was ten.” Since becoming a shop owner of Seven26, located in Cicero, one of the few Latino communities near Chicago, Juan has taken on the challenge to influence with positivity and encourage other barbers across Chicago to do the same in their communities. In 2014, Juan launched the very first 24 hour Chicago barber charity event, #CuttingtheNegativity, which helped fund his former elementary school.
He created the event to challenge local barbers to donate their time and money by cutting hair for free. For almost five years, Juan and his no-negativity-movement have traveled across the country, asking barbers to put their egos and wallets aside and cut hair out of love. Due to violent headlines in Chicago he decided to bring #CuttingtheNegativity back home. The Latino business owner has set a new goal for himself, to make the barber charity event more than just a hashtag,
“The barbers who participate are giving back to the culture of barbering, to their current clients, and clients who are no longer living. The movement is to make an impact. My goal is to make #CuttingtheNegativity an organizational charity. Juan hopes to inspire not just barbers, but other business owners to make their noble accomplishments visible. “In the age of social media, there’s no excuse.”
He is committed to enlightening traditional barbershop owners so they, too, can help guide the youth. The lack of social education and diversity is detrimental to education systems across the country. Now more than ever, Chicago’s barber educators and barbershop owners are changing the industry for the better. “In the past, when people would ask me what I did for a living I’d say, “I’m a barber.” And women would be like, “oh!” Now, reactions are completely different. Now, people are seeing the hard work, dedication, and what comes with the job.
The journey is important. If you’re a student barber, and you’re looking at your ending, sorry, you are not going to survive in this business. It’s easy to hire barbers. It’s easy to run a barbershop. But it’s hard to find trustworthy barbers, who won’t hurt your name, your brand and your next move. It all depends on what you’re going to use your license for: clout or motivation?”
Timeout Magazine’s favorite city, Chicago, is as diverse as it is divided. Cultures from all parts of the world travel in all directions like wind through the city. And just like language is universal, so is a classic fade. The movement and those supporting the culture are elevating not only a barber’s job description, but their people, their hoods and their families.
About fifteen years ago, a white man walking into a black barbershop was unheard of. Today, an Asian-American barber fading a Caucasian woman’s head, in a Latino-Chicago community is an example of economic-liberalism within a small business. So here’s a question. What’s the difference between a beauty salon and a barbershop? Aside from hair studies and skill level, the only difference is gender.
One of the many barbershop owners involved in this movement is Israel Torres. He is a loving Mexican-American father and owner of a very vocal barbershop in the quasi suburban area of Plainfield. He is family to an elite barbershop chain dispersed throughout the Chicago area called Platinum Fades.
And though Israel’s barbershop isn’t exactly located in the heart of the city, it still has managed to set itself apart from all the rest. At the center of a small business plaza, near a heavy traffic highway route is Israel Torres’ Platinum Fades. The shop manages to attract clients from a variety of ethnic communities across the suburban villages. Israel explained why that is. “Our business practices volunteerism: coat drives, food drives, advocating for little league teams, cancer foundations, college campus events and supporting our veterans. We are privileged more than others in this world. We have a platform to set an example. Especially now more than ever. Plus, I have a great team of barbers, and they don’t all have just one color of skin.”
When you walk into the doors of Israel’s barbershop home, you are welcomed by a chorus of humming hair clippers fusing with a popular Mexican Norteño ballad, all playing over a debate between a family of barbers and their boss, Israel. Most clients strongly agree that walking into Israel’s barbershop without an appointment is like jumping on I-55 during five-o’clock traffic. Since the grand opening, Israel’s barbershop has always been stacked with the most cutting-edge barbers. And popularity is nothing brand new to Israel.
His shop is a platinum trombone to his community. Born and raised in the Latino-Chicago village, he began cutting hair during his teenage years, and that’s when everyone started knowing his name. “Growing up in a lower income family. I couldn’t afford to get a haircut, so I learned how to cut my own hair. Then my friends wanted me to cut their hair and I realized, I was a barber. My first goal was to become a licensed barber. I’m platinum now.”
The Platinum Fades shop in Plainfield is surrounded by more than thirty small-owned barbershop businesses. There was a point where clientele was slowly disappearing, and he considered seeking a new location. But Israel had learned from his previous business failures. Before opening the suburban barbershop, he remembered the reasons why he closed his very first barbershop in Chicago. “My [first] barbershop was ratchet. Unstable. Disorganized. I wasn’t ready to be a leader. But it didn’t stop me. It benefited me. Being from Chicago. Being a Latino. Both my social and personal struggles gave me access to this culture. I’m still standing,” Israel said, while waving his cast hand.
But the setback didn’t stop Israel from accomplishing his American dream, it made things clearer. He explains why, “I felt a responsibility to incorporate my culture, and my ideas into my business. All barbers are different. Some more experienced. We all have our strengths. I knew what I wanted, I’m proud of my culture, and I’m good at what I do. My Platinum barbershop is the result of my finesse.” Israel revealed how bothered he felt by the acts of bigotry and racial slurs appearing in the news and all over social media feeds. He was newly influenced by certain movements happening around the country like the Women’s Civil Rights Movement and many protests in Latino communities.
This helped him reevaluate his business flex, and rethink traditional values in a barbershop setting. So which movement influenced his business upgrade the most? “Gender equality!” he said, quickly apologizing to other customers in the shop for screaming out the answer. “It was an immediate decision. It’s 2018! Barbers aren’t just men. My barbershop has a woman barber, and her clientele is up there. Little girls will look up to her and should. We welcome all genders in my barbershop. It’s about self-expression and I encourage everybody to express themselves to a certain extent, though I’m still the boss. On the weekends, you’ll find Israel and more than half the Platinum staff cutting, their clients smiling, well before the capes are even off. It’s effortless. But ultimately, Israel’s love for his Mexican culture and unique leadership are what keeps the doors open. It’s almost comic seeing new clients walk into Israel’s barbershop expecting a leather seat to be empty the moment they finish writing their names on the waiting list.
“People want haircuts from my current barbers or past barbers who went on to build their own success. I expanded my shop and my staff to accommodate my now overwhelming list of clientele. I guess, it could also be because I’m expanding my own family? I have one on the way. Currently, I have twenty working barbers, and we’re here to cut. My team brings the business. My barbershop is culture. Period.”
Here’s some advice: if your barber works for Israel Torres, you should cancel your plans for the rest of the day and wait your turn. Trust me. You’ll wait your turn. And if you get hungry? There’s a taco joint next door. You’re welcome.
“Barbers are the most egotistical people on Earth,” Sunni Powell said. And he’s not wrong. The amount of time barbers gaze at themselves in the mirror while cutting another person’s head is a little excessive. Regardless of the ego, we respect our barbers. Our Chicago barbers are heroes, activists, Latino, teachers, and sometimes wear heels. They are family and they are humble in their own way and cut hair to inspire. Since the 19th century, the barbering industry has built a culture based on communal support and fine men’s grooming. Right now, the new generation of American barbers are both men and women. The culture is evolving in a revolutionary way. In Chicago, professional barbers are exercising their basic rights, and contributing to their communities by creating a space for human interaction outside of their shops. The new era of American barbers preach longevity to the next generation, and all it takes is one haircut. But if you’re a barber only in it for the money, that’s okay. Your fade game better be on point though.