Nothing compares to that feeling you get when you walk out of the salon with a fresh haircut, that feeling of newness and transformation when you leave the hair salon. For those few moments, you strut out of the salon and feel like you can conquer anything that comes your way, feel like you’re validated and you want people to notice you. If we take a moment to consider this, it’s so strange to think these strands of keratin and dead skin cells can make us feel so on top of the world. This strangeness is common for clients and the hair stylists who create this art growing out of our heads.

Nicholaus Zinis, owner and stylist of Nola’s Underground Salon, is a bald man with a passion for hair. Walking down the dingy, narrow staircase into a basement to get to Nola’s Underground Salon, I was bombarded by colors and designs that released a sort of cosmic energy into the atmosphere. As I walked through the fuzzy wallpapered space, my eyes were inundated with velvet and random antiques hanging all over the wall. Zinis, a colorful man in fantastic flowy pants, promptly greeted me.

When we think of artists, we seldom think of hairstylists. We think of the struggling artist, someone who has a paranormal connection with a canvas. For Zinis, his canvas is hair. He uses universal energy and this seemingly otherworldly inspiration to do his work and create art.

“If you look at the hair, read it and touch it, it will tell you what it wants to do,” Zinis said. “I can’t even claim credit for the haircut, it just flows. You tap into the universal love that flows through your arms. Every haircut I do takes three seconds; my day goes by in minutes.”

Zinis is a doctor in hair practice, scientist of color and artist of style all in one. He mixes colors and creates masterpieces, each one unique in its own way. He is aware every single person who walks through the doors of his salon is different — both in hair and personality.

“Sane people don’t do hair … you have to deal with a lot of personalities and pure, crazy chaos,” Zinis said.

For Zinis, it is not just about shaping art, but the personal connections he makes as a stylist. He quit his corporate job to become a hairstylist, and has since been surprisingly fulfilled with the human connections he has made with his clients. That wonderful connection we feel with our stylists is genetically predisposed.

“How do animals bond? Through grooming,” Zinis explained. “When you groom each other, you sit in the chair and it’s just diarrhea of the mouth.”

“I had a group of students, and they left in April and none of them got their hair cut in the summertime because they were like, ‘It’s not the same, I can’t get my hair cut now.’ They came back in the fall with a summer’s worth growth of hair, and they were like, ‘I wanted to wait to get my haircut with you.’”

You establish a close bond with your stylist by working together to express yourself through hair. Stylists humble themselves by washing your hair, placing you in a vulnerable state. The trust that you immediately give to another person to shape this new part of you, to help create your identity and to show it to the world is such an intimate experience.

“We’ve had people who are suicidal who come and get a haircut,” Zinis explained. He shared a story of a client who had decided not to commit suicide after getting a haircut because Zinis had listened to him and showed care for him when he came into his studio.

“So is it a haircut? No, it’s so much more than that.”

Hair is art, beautiful and expressive, but we often miss telling another side of the story. Just as visual and performance art shapes culture, so does hair. A side of the story that has been brushed under the rug for too long is the story of hair as an art form for women of color. It is through the experiences of women of color that expression through hair has been an essential part of identity for a long time, and it is time we notice.

Growing up, I was known as the girl with the long hair. I remember one of my elementary school teachers taking out a ruler to measure the length of my hair in front of the entire class, commenting on its length and fullness. I grew up around the smell of burnt hair in the Dominican hair salons in Washington Heights, New York; the sound of mighty Dominican stylists chatting loudly in Spanish about the latest gossip of the neighborhood; the sounds of praise over my “good” hair. The heat of the blow dryer is a distinct feeling I will never forget. My hair was being shaped by these women, and at the same time they were shaping me and who I was.

As I grew older, I started to get my hair cut in upscale salons in SoHo. There, I became accustomed to the smell of bleached hair. I familiarized myself with the side-eyed glances of straight-haired blonde women toward my dark and curly hair. I grew used to being pampered, being offered complimentary tea and paying at least $125 for a haircut. My hair evolved into bragging rights for me — how much I spent on my haircut and products, the length of my hair, and the beautiful and perfect curl texture that took form. My curls were a sign of my privilege, the privilege of fitting more into the white normative than other people of color, especially women.

Khalya Hopkins, an employee for the New York City Department of Education and one of the fiercest women to which I have ever spoken, wears her own “crown of glory” with pride, as her art comes to form in a very different manner. She found art in her hair with bantu knots and hair wraps, both ways of wearing your hair when “transitioning,” a term that describes the process women of color, usually women with kinky hair, undergo when shifting from putting chemicals in their hair to wearing it natural.

“People don’t understand that when you do transitions, that’s almost like a spiritual journey,” Hopkins said. “You have to talk yourself through that.”

“I’ve been sitting around ingesting white normative beauty for so long, that it’s not just cutting your hair. It’s cutting off a piece of your identity. I’ve identified with being part of the status quo of beauty, right? Longer hair, straighter hair. And I had to make a decision that I was no longer going to perpetuate that standard.”

Hair is a status symbol.

“That’s a badge of honor — when you can keep your hair straight without using any other chemicals. You’re almost a preferred, VIP Black person, and that’s unfortunate,” Hopkins said.

The same is true in many other cultures and communities, but all art will have its critics. In the same way artists learn to love what spills from their hearts onto the canvas, women of color learn to embrace their “preferred” hair type.

Liznel Ferreira, a former stylist, also had to come to terms with her hair.

“Now I love it because I know I can wear it so many different ways … it was a process in figuring out how to manage my hair,” Ferreira said.

This movement from relaxed to natural hair is not just a reflection of self-identity, but it’s a fight against history and the social norm when the society is telling you that your curls, your personal identity and art form, are wrong.

“Growing up, my hair was always compared to my sisters’ hair because their curls were softer. I grew up putting relaxer in my hair,” Ferreira explained.

When I was younger, I straightened my hair often because I saw that as beautiful. Toward the end of high school, I finally stopped fighting my hair and tapped into the cosmic energy both Zinis and Hopkins felt in their hair by nurturing my natural curl pattern. It was the most freeing decision I have ever made, and it is a bold statement I make as a woman of color.

“Natural hair is huge: it’s big, it’s unruly, it’s uncontrollable … you are literally saying, ‘This is what freedom looks like.’ And that is something that is scary to people, especially pertaining to WOC. We are the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to privilege and status,” Hopkins explained.

Like art, hair is a political and personal statement, especially for women of color like myself and Hopkins. Hair sends a message out into the world that we are here and we are going to take up space and display the art that grows naturally out of our scalps unforgivingly.

“I’m going to take up space. A lot of it. I’m going to take up all of your space, and you are going to have to deal with it,” Hopkins exclaimed.

Just as one would go to a museum and not touch the artwork, the same rules apply for hair. What grows out of our scalps is our own work — one that Michelangelo cannot even truly recreate. No matter what type of hair, or lack of hair, you are making a statement. It is a masterpiece in itself. We have to uplift and encourage each other by educating ourselves about the nature of the artwork and the history surrounding it to truly appreciate and understand it. This starts with education.

“When I was 23, I decided to go to cosmetology school,” Ferreira said. “When I was there, I did not learn how to deal with hair of my texture. … We always worked on fine hair.”

If we knew more about hair and could appreciate the uniqueness of it, then maybe we would not be so scared to let loose and let our natural self-expression.

Our hair, or lack thereof, shapes who we are. It tells the world who we are. Hair offends and confuses. It brings people together and alienates. Hair frustrates us, finds us community and validates our identities. Hair makes us feel new and vibrant, giving us new energy and empowerment that we never knew we had inside of us. It is a powerful connector and divider, and we decide where the trajectory goes.

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