When we think of a barber, we probably all have an image that immediately pops into our imagination. Maybe it is the image of an elder gent in a loose button-up shirt, pocket over the breast, with perhaps his initials embroidered into the fabric. If so, you may have just dated yourself. Perhaps your image is of a young and hip chap with a decidedly modern set of tools but a fondness for the quality and care of fine dress of decades gone by. The type to wear a flat cap with suspenders and a bow tie while every single eyelet of his shirt has a pearl button peaking through. Again, you have probably just dated yourself. Or maybe you picture someone who looks suspiciously like Sweeney Todd standing behind the chair holding up a straight razor. No judgment, but that last image is a little weird.
Today’s fine barbers are most definitely not the usual Floyd from Mayberry-type, that’s for sure. They may slick their hair back like that ancient titan of men’s grooming, and they may have a fond predilection for his retro-style glasses, but one feature that they most certainly prefer as the majority is that their skin tends to be adorned with ink.
Historically, a barber has always been a multi-talented provider for hire. Today’s man or woman behind the frock may specialize in cutting hair and shaving beards, but barbers from the Middle Ages tended to perform surgeries in addition to haircuts. In fact, it wasn't until the 14th century that these barber-surgeons branched into two separate individual specialties of barbers and surgeons. Barbers managed to hold onto the ability to pull teeth for a while longer though, until things like regulation and sanitization became all the vogue.
To this day, we tend to think of a red, white, and blue striped pole as a sign of a place to get your haircut. Most don’t know that red refers to blood, white to bandages, and blue to the color of our veins, which were all part of a daily to-do list for barbers back in the day. The barber’s pole stays in use today as a throwback to the original skillsets of your neighborhood barber, but hopefully, most modern barbers aren’t seeing much red and the only blue they see is in the vessel that sanitizes their combs between uses.
From the 14th century until after World War II, the need for a profession to cut and shave the average man ebbed and flowed with the times. During the late 19th century, the growth and acceptance of tattoos began to improve and they became more prominent in society. Mostly men wore the badges of ink, typically soldiers or sailors using the permanence of a tattoo to mark their skin with a reminder of a love left back at home or in a port far away. There wasn’t any real crossover of tattoo parlors and barber shops, other than that they most likely shared the same real estate areas. Being that both offerings typically were performed at very small premises, it would have seemed unlikely for them to coexist under the same roof.
Expression Of Art
Cut to today and you will see that artwork adorns the skin of most of those who cater to the gents looking for the best haircut and shave. I tend to think that the explosion of cookie-cutter style hair salons during the 80s and 90s undercut the truly seasoned professionals and caused a vacuum devoid of people devoted to the craft of fine men’s grooming. Artists inexplicably filled that void left in a previously old-fashioned industry, and they filled it with a passion for pushing the edge of what was deemed acceptable by popular society. The traditional sense of style of most serious barbers, mixed with the traditional tattoo style of simple design and bold color creates a bit of irony. I think of that irony as a bit of a wink from the barber, acknowledging the past history of the barbering profession, but still putting a stamp on their own version of it.
Sign Of The Times
As the growth of focus on men’s grooming continues to expand, the co-existence of artists and barbers makes for a nice change of pace. The inkwork adds a little bit of the grittiness that existed back in the early 20th century when tattoos were starting to become more than just a spectacle at a traveling circus, or the identifiers of a sailor or convict. That being said, today’s best barbers are no longer a neat stereotype. Some of the best barbers available these days are women who have a love for the craft of men’s fine grooming and may not have a single speck of ink on them anywhere. The person standing behind the chair with an apron in hand and beckoning you to sit may be any one of several unique styles or types of people.
As the sit-them-and-clip-them style of haircut warehouses starts to fade into obscurity, new types of gimmicks have started to appear as ways to entice men to come in and have a seat. The one aspect of a men’s grooming salon that will never go out of style, however, is a shop focused on a great cut. More importantly, though, they will leave the man feeling better about themselves when they walk out of the place, than they did when they walked in. And hopefully with some colorful artwork to look at as well.What's the connection between ink and haircuts? More historical than you might expect.