by Kimi Eisele
Tio Harris has been cutting hair—including his own—since he was seven years old. Before that, his father was the household haircutter. “But he always left blotches and bald spots,” Harris says.
One day at school, Harris was asked to take his hat off and was so embarrassed about his hair that he came home and said to his father, “You’re never cutting it again.”
By age 10, he says, “I was cutting every head in the neighborhood.”
Harris officially became a barber at age 21. Now he runs the Dunbar Barber Academy at the Dunbar Pavilion in Tucson, training an average of 40 students a year to become barbers.
“It’s the oldest profession in the world,” Harris says.
An Academy Opens
Ten years ago, Harris was running two barber shops in Tucson—Tio’s and Kingdom Cuts—and was also a pastor in a church. The late Cressworth Lander, then president of the Dunbar Coalition, a group working to rehabilitate the Dunbar School into a cultural center, came to him and asked him to start a barber academy in the old school.
At the time, the building was “naked,” Tio says. “It looked like ghosts were in here.”
Tio himself helped rehabilitate part of the building and in 2007 he opened the Academy and started teaching with eight students. Eventually he expanded to the second floor of the building, helping with that renovation as well.
Today Harris’s whole family works for the Academy—his wife, three sons, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.
That, combined with all the students, makes for an extended family of sorts, complete with all the potential for conflict.
“We have 34 students right now–white, Black, from overseas, women. Everyone has an opinion, and they’re all working eight hours a day not making money. How do you balance all that?”
One way is by giving everyone the right amount of personal attention, Harris says. “We give everybody a nickname, something that goes with their personality. We’ve got JP, BD, Edward Clipperhands, Flavo-Flave, Cassie the Barber, Boo Boo the Barber.”
To become a barber in the state of Arizona requires passing an exam and obtaining a license. Students at the Dunbar Academy put in 1500 hours over 10 months before taking the exam. The license lasts a lifetime and costs $50 every two years to maintain.
What separates trained and licensed barbers from “those on the street,” Harris says, is sterilization and sanitation. “You can learn on the Internet, but have no real credentials. You won’t know about sterilization.”
This other tools of the trade include knowing how to operate the chair, use of lighting, what products to use, and how to drape customers to keep them tidy. Business basics are also part of the training, Harris says.
Harris also trains his students to give facial and massages, which he says customers love. “We massage with passion.”
A haircut at the Dunbar Barber Academy is $5.
Students bring in their own clients and sometimes practice outside of school. The Academy also offers free haircuts in the community and to church groups as well as at special events like the annual AIDS walk, veterans events, and back-to-school events.
Jared Joaquin, a new student, cuts hair for friends and family on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Sells, where he’s from. “Mostly natural cuts,” Joaquin says.
Since the Academy’s formation, over 480 students have studied there, 90 percent of whom are Latino. Twenty-five students now own barbershops and a number of others have become instructors at the Academy. Harris feels a sense of accomplishment about that.
“It’s like a bird, I only keep you in the nest until you’re ready to fly. I train you to leave me,” he says. “When your babies become your competition then you did it right.”
Hair and Healing
In the Middle Ages, barbers were called “barber surgeons.” In addition to giving shaves and haircuts, they worked as surgeons and dentists helping to rid people of disease and through bloodletting, leeching, and teeth extraction. The iconic red, white, and sometimes blue striping of the revolving barber pole sign is said to come from this tradition. Originally, a brass basin sat atop the pole, representing the place where leeches were kept and where blood flowed.
While barbers no longer let blood, barbershops might still might be considered places of healing. Or at least of community conversation.
“Barbershops are normally the cornerstone of every community,” Harris says.
This is particularly true in the Black community. Early Black barbers were often still enslaved men serving primarily white men. By the late 19th century, free Black barbers opened barber shops to serve other Black men. Barbershops soon became important public spaces where men could trade life stories, gossip, and support one another.
Debi Chess Mabie thinks of Black barbershops as “sacred spaces.” Mabie was recently named the first Community Impact Fellow at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She will lead cultural efforts and revitalization of the Dunbar Pavilion, which houses the Barber Academy.
“The Black barbershop is the place Black men can be themselves without scrutiny of the white gaze. For most, a barber is their spiritual guru, relationship counselor, political informant, and friend. It’s much deeper than the cut,” Mabie says.
Harris agrees, but says today’s barbershop is a place for everyone, which makes the role of the barber especially important. “You have different races and religions, intellects and non-intellectuals all in the same place. Our role is a balance or a buffer,” Harris says.
To perform that role well means being able to listen to people. “We are the number one free therapists. We’re gonna listen to you. We’re gonna get like we’re on your side. We’re not gonna try to fix you,” Harris says.
Alex Castillo, an instructor at the Academy, says barbering is less about hair than it is about people. “The haircut is probably the least important part of the situation. Hair is just what gets you here.”
Tapers, fades, high fades, shaves, trims, designs.
For men, trends in hair are often set by rappers, entertainers, and athletes, particularly in the Black community, Harris said.
Current Black hairstyles speak to a form of rebellion against the status quo, Harris says. “Ten or fifteen years ago, you’d see short hair, waves, neat and cultured styles. Now it’s more, how shall we say, ‘nappy.’ You even see dreads in the workplace now. That’s a dynamic shift. It reflects what’s going on. People are saying, ‘I’m going to be me.’”
Right now, shaving designs into hair is also very popular, and Harris brings in experts to teach that. Trends also tend to recycle. Back in style are pompadour cuts from 1960s and ’70s. “The gentleman’s cut is always a classic,” he says, referring to a traditional men’s haircut—short in the back and sides and slightly longer at the top.
In 2007, Harris lobbied the Arizona state board to get African American hair as part of the barbering exam. “It used to be that you had to know how to cut straight hair, not curly hair. White hair only. But we shifted things after that.”
Finding a Foundation, Fulfilling a Call
Castillo, an Academy instructor, says becoming a barber turned his life around. After his brother was murdered, Castillo says, “My life wasn’t looking so good. I was gonna end up in prison, seeking revenge.” But then he met Harris and enrolled in the Academy, and started changing his goals. “It gave me a sense of family, a stable foundation when everything else was rocky.”
Christopher Gill, another instructor, said the Academy similarly gave him a new sense of direction. “I was 19 and a bit of a knucklehead. I had a baby on the way. I was ill-tempered. This taught me patience.”
Gill, who said he already had the “gift of gab,” agrees that connecting with people is the best part of the job. “It’s such a network here. In this work, you’re really able to influence the community. So many types of people come in here. There’s a lot of laughter.”
Rob Kistler, another student, said going to barber school fulfilled a call he felt to serve the community. A musician from Tempe and Southern California, Kistler says he always liked being in barbershops for the atmosphere, the décor, the conversation, even the smells. “My idea of it is this place where a father and grandfather can bring a son. It’s a man spa. It’s family oriented,” he said.
Kistler finds the camaraderie at the Academy a relief, given the divisiveness of our times. “It’s all of humanity here. There’s such wide diversity, all different backgrounds,” he said. “I’m the old guy here, and everybody’s so encouraging. It’s true that barbers stick together.”
The Dunbar Barber Academy, 325 W. Second St., Tucson, is open to the public Mondays through Fridays, 8 am to 5 pm.
Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops, an online article in Collectors’ Weekly, offers a great history about barbershops in Black communities.
Here’s a radio piece from Marketplace on the economic history of the African-American barbershop.