Barbers stand at the heart of their shops. With repeated strokes, they move the clippers up and down, back and forth across a myriad of heads and chins every day. But this is not mundane, wage-labor service work; this is a craft with a rich history. Whether they own the shop or rent a chair, barbers work for themselves, establishing a level of economic security that countless African Americans have been seeking since the end of slavery.
Haircuts are not commodities for African Americans. You cannot get one anywhere, from anyone, at any price. One’s barber knows how he likes his hair cut, how long to keep the sideburns, how to shape the taper. Outside of the particulars of one’s cut, a barber will come to learn much about their clients. Information is divulged about family, work, recreation, and sometimes their greatest fears and joys. Since these clients come from near and far, working-class to upper-class, young and old, barbers have their finger on the pulse of black communities in ways that only beauticians and ministers come closest to.
The barber-client relationship sustains these businesses in a changing urban environment in the face of gentrification and outside economic development. If African Americans keep going to the same barber because of their skill and familiarity, the larger public of the shop will define the nature of the community taking shape inside. Haircuts, shaves, respite, work, political engagement, social commentary, and manly bravado. Men who have moved to San Francisco make their weekly Saturday sojourn over the Bay Bridge so their barber can tighten up their fade and they can rap with folks they know, as well as affable strangers.
Brandon Tauszik’s GIF images of black barbers in Oakland, California reveal the resolve of a group of ardent professionals. The project illuminates the position of barbers as conduits of black communities; of Oakland. Behind these portraits are the aspirations of men who are not just making a living, but who see the value of their labors in the development of black community life. Like the GIF images themselves, these men and their shops are not static. Even as they stand behind their barber’s chair with arms propped up clutching the clippers, they are constantly in motion and in tune with the comings and goings of the people in their city.