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“Hairdressing is a social service”

Words and reporting by Bailey Basham (The Contributor) and Bastian Pütter (bodo)

Editing by Tony Inglis

Recently, two street papers in different parts of the world published similar stories celebrating organisations that give free haircuts to homeless people. Dortmund-based magazine bodo told the story of the Barber’s Angels, a group of professional hairdressers from all over the North Rhine-Westphalia region who had come to Bochum to dish out complimentary styling. Across the Atlantic, Nashville’s The Contributor described a day of business for the Nashville Street Barbers.

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It’s bumping on a recent Monday night at War Memorial Plaza in Nashville. More than 100 people mill about, waiting in lines for barber chairs. Hair stylists ask their clients about their preferences — “You like a little more around the edges, right?” — queries a black-beanied stylist of the man in his chair. Jen Harley, sporting a pink mohawk and wielding razor sharp shears, blasts ‘80s Madonna and Michael Jackson from her station as she works.

Credit: Jesse Lendzion

The festive atmosphere takes over the normally mundane downtown space weekly, as Nashville Street Barbers sets up their mobile salon. The project came from an idea founder Caroline Lindner had five years ago. Working as a hair stylist for years, Lindner understood the transformative power of a good haircut, and as a Nashvillian with a heart for helping, she wanted to use what she knew to give back. “I have been getting groups of barbers and stylists to donate haircuts to different nonprofit groups for five years now — it’s something we can give that brings joy, improves self-worth and gives confidence. It also can change how the world looks at that person. It’s a big deal,” she says.

Credit: Jesse Lendzion

Today, some of the city’s finest stylists and barbers have those experiencing homelessness lining up for a cut in their chair. Some evenings, the collective will do as many as 80 haircuts in one swing. “Having that human connection when someone is cutting their hair means a lot, and I’ve always gotten joy out of helping someone really own their look,” says Harley, who worked as a stylist for 23 years before becoming a representative for a hair tools company. She’s been involved with the Nashville Street Barbers for three months.

For Harley and Lindner, the importance of the work comes back to one thing — the understanding that people are more alike than different.

Credit: Jesse Lendzion

“This work is so important to me because I see myself in each and every person,” Lindner says. “I am only a couple of steps away from being them, and if I can offer an experience that can make someone forget all of the negatives that can come with being homeless, I have done my part. There are people that showed me the same kindness…when I was at my lowest, and I can only strive to do as well as they did.”

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Meanwhile, in Bochum, the so-called ‘Apostles’ of Barber’s Angels arrive, with their nicknames printed on their leather cowls. One has the rank of ‘Centurion’ and is accompanied by two ‘Apprentice Angels’, who haven’t yet earned their cowls. The Barber’s Angels like to play with the clichés associated with Rockers and Biker gangs. “You’ll soon see why,” grins Norbert, who is one of the few barbers who actually has a motorcyclist’s licence. “For a start, we’re certain to get people’s attention,” he continues. “And then it’s fascinating to see how our image helps to make people less anxious about coming in.”

The Barber’s Angels were founded in 2016 by Claus Niedermaier, a hairdresser from Biberach in Swabia, southwestern Germany. The group was started with the simple aim of offering free haircuts to homeless people and it has since grown into a nationwide movement. Thanks to professional organisation, a well-crafted image which guarantees publicity and its membership of 180 female hairdressers, the angels can look back on a great accomplishment: they have provided over 10,000 haircuts for the needy to date.

Credit: Sebastian Sellhorst

“We’ve linked up with organisations like bodo,” Norbert says. “You need trust, and places that people know and trust. And we want to help the right people. It’s not just about offering free haircuts so that people can save money.” His colleague, whose nickname is Lady Grey, continues: “Our target group is those people who find it difficult to get to the barber’s. Perhaps, too, they are people that the barbers don’t really want to serve, maybe just because they have dogs. This is a problem that’s not confined to the night shelters.”

First up is a group of street kids and, straight away, the Barbers get the chance to show what they can do. Some of the kids have brought along photos of the styles they want, some of them with complicated patterns shaved in, and some want to be made up as well.

Credit: Sebastian Sellhorst

The atmosphere is lively, even boisterous at times. After the young people have left, their places are taken by people who sleep on the streets or who use the emergency night shelters, and they are followed by people who use the soup kitchen. Bodo vendors come along in dribs and drabs. Beate, who is sleeping on a friend’s couch at the moment and uses the day centre at the church asks, hesitantly, if she can join the growing queue. “I’m not on the list,” she admits. “So what?” laughs Norbert.

The normally quiet archway, under which the makeshift salon has been put together, has attracted a fair bit of attention this morning. Cars pass at walking pace and irritated passers-by ask if there’s a flea market on today. Somebody even calls the local public hygiene offices to express his disapproval. He is met with hand-wringing apologies and advice on how to keep milk fresh in summer.

Credit: Sebastian Sellhorst

There are, indeed, several double-takes as people look at themselves in the mirror. Women and men do little twirls as if they are on the catwalk and people with freshly-cut hair hug their hairdressers. “What you are doing is sooo great!” Michaela exclaims. Jan, Ralf, Tom, Marcus, Rainer and the other bodo vendors show off their new ‘dos’ to their colleagues. “It looks great! I’m not going to wear my cap any more today,” one of them says.

It’s early afternoon by the time the last haircuts are finished. 62 people have been given new hairdos by eight professionals using all their skills, patience and know-how. It’s been a tiring day for them all – not least because they’ve learned so much about the lives of the people who have been sitting in front of them. “It can happen so quickly that you lose your grip. We hear so many stories that really get to us,” Lady Grey says. “As a hairdresser you’re right up close,” Norbert adds. “After a day like this I go home and quietly count my blessings.”

Translation by Peter Bone

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