Barbershops are a dime a dozen in Haiti, so competition is real. In a country plagued with unemployment, they’re a beacon of hope for self-starters. No fancy education or rich backers are needed to set up shop, making it the perfect small business. “You can literally start cutting hair with a comb and a razorblade, so it’s a profession that is open to everyone,” explains Richard Fleming, founder of Amazing Barbershop—a website, book project, instagram handle and exhibition concept documenting the country’s unique storefronts.
Shop owners stand out from the pack by commissioning local artists to decorate their establishments with colorful portraits of models and celebrities. Called poste (pronounced post-eh, a kreyolization of the word “poster”), the artwork nods to the painted heads seen in barbershops throughout Africa.
“You can literally start cutting hair with a comb and a razorblade, so it’s a profession that is open to everyone.”
In recent years, the works have gotten larger, more widespread, and more complex. PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince, a new exhibition at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, pays homage to Haitian creatives, while celebrating the tradition of tonsorial art. The ground level of the three-story exhibit houses a life-sized reproduction of a Haitian barbershop organized by Fleming; it features newly commissioned portraits by painter Michel Lafleur (who ironically was denied a visa to see his own show). Upon entry, visitors can get a haircut from a local barber.
We caught up with Fleming at the September 7 opening to discuss the history of poste, his Amazing Barbershop project, and the Pioneer Works installation. Check out the interview below.
CASSIUS: Explain the role of Haiti’s barbershops as it relates to the overall communities they are located in.
RICHARD FLEMING: Throughout Haiti, barbershops tend to be somewhere more than just a place to get your hair cut. They sell cold beers, cokes, cellphone airtime, and in the popular districts they are a place to watch television—especially soccer. In poorer areas, a barbershop might have the only working TV that people have access to. The best shops become community hubs. The barbers hear everything that’s going on from their customers and then they relay those bits of gossip or political intrigue to the next customer, and so on. They are a place to check in, a kind of clearing house for local info. Haitian barbershops are a perfect example of how the radio trottoir, the so-called “sidewalk radio,” functions.
CASSIUS: The Amazing Barbershop mission statement refers to barbering as being “the most democratic of professions.” Explain.
RF: Haiti is a place where you have grotesque levels of unemployment and underemployment. Thousands of kids graduate every year into a job market that offers an absolute minimum of opportunities. Cutting hair, however, is a profession that is open to everyone. It’s democratic also in the sense that success depends entirely on making the customer look good and feel good about themselves, so that they will come back.
CASSIUS: Talk a bit about the history of poste and how barbershop art has evolved in Haiti.
RF: Barbershops all over Africa have been decorated with portraits and paintings of possible haircuts for decades, whereas the dazzling quality and immense size of many of the poste that you see in Haiti seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. Several artists I’ve talked to about this point to Serge Dautant, who had a thriving sign-painting business from at least the 1980s until his passing a few years ago. He had Brasserie Couronne—the huge Haitian bottler of Coca-Cola and other major soft drinks—as clients, but he also did many independent women’s beauty parlors and hair salons, and is viewed as the grandfather of Haitian barbershop painting. There are only a few of his paintings left on the streets of Port-au-Prince, but the shops that have them are very proud of them and they work hard to preserve them, sometimes hiring other painters to carefully give them touch ups. Many of the most talented painters decorating barbershops today are in one way or another associated with his old business; one was his apprentice, two others I know learned at least in part from that apprentice, and so on. You now have a situation where proprietors who really want their place to look good are hiring these guys and commissioning multiple portraits that are hand-painted directly onto the exterior of their businesses. I’ve heard people say it’s not a barbershop until you get some poste painted on it.
CASSIUS: Who are some painters at the forefront of Haitian barbershop art?
RF: Michel Lafleur is an incredibly talented painter who has at least a dozen spectacular barbershops dotted around the Grand Rue area, the former downtown business district of Port-au-Prince. Jean Valmé, who lives in the La Marine area on the edge of Carrefour, I would put up against any of the world’s hyper-realist painters. His barbershops are astonishing, but the work he does at home in charcoal and pencil on paper is beyond. When you see the modest circumstances he is working in it is almost impossible to conceive of how he manages to do what he does. He often does his barbershop portraits in conjunction with Kenley Louis, another artist. There is also Lucas, who completely dominates the central Delmas section of the city. Other notables include Sonson V.I.P., Pouchon, Meuz, and somebody, or somebodies, who call themselves “No Limit Art.”
CASSIUS: What is the Amazing Barbershop project and how did it come about?
RF: This project began as a photographic exploration of the phenomenon. I have a long history of visiting Haiti and I just began taking pictures of the barbershops to document them. I think it was from looking at the photos that I realized that not only do the artists sign their paintings, but they also put their telephone numbers on them, so that another entrepreneur or would-be barbershop owner can reach them and hire them. So I started calling up the ones who were the most talented and prolific and asking them if they would have lunch with me and be interviewed. I always brought with me photographs of their own work to give to the artists, and that went over huge. But the economics of this kind of sign-painting are tough, and like the vast majority of Haitian artists, a lot of these guys live in very humble circumstances. I started thinking about how I was taking from them, literally, in that I was taking photographs of their work, and what were they getting out of the deal? Lunch with a visitor? I realized I could easily build a website to show off some of these artists and simply try to get them more work doing what they already do. So the Amazing Barbershop project now is really two things—a pile of photos that might one day make a great book, and a service through which anybody who wants one can commission an amazing, Haitian-barbershop-style painting of themselves, their pet, their uncle, or whatever! These can be ordered directly on our website.
CASSIUS: How did the Amazing Barbershop Pioneer Works exhibit come to be?
RF: I’ve known Leah Gordon, the co-curator of the PÒTOPRENS show at Pioneer Works, since 1993, when we first met in Haiti. The absolutely fabulous show that she has put on is really about contemporary artistic production in Port-au-Prince, and the kind of vernacular sign-painting represented by the barbershops is I think a quite natural fit. Anyone who goes to Haiti often would recognize the ubiquity of the hand-painted signage and the billions of barbershops—these are an important part of what gives the city its vitality, soul and, literally, its color.