Salons in Los Angeles County have been closed to the public since Dec. 3, but for social-media-savvy stylists like Amanda Lyberger, a colorist known for her eye-catching rainbow looks, the show must go on.
In Thair Salon, her otherwise abandoned place of employment in the warehouse district of downtown Los Angeles, Lyberger, 28, recently gave her girlfriend, a tattoo artist named Blue Poulin, 22, a “hair tattoo.”
Over three hours, Lyberger used hair dye to paint a colorful graphic (inspired by a pair of patterned pants from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) onto Poulin’s bleached buzz cut as if it were a canvas. After a wash, she used a pair of clippers to outline and enhance the geometric shapes she created, allowing Poulin to “wear” a retro print on her head.
The painstaking art of hair tattooing is one of impermanence. In just a week, the hair will grow and blur the design, and in four weeks, the blue, pink and yellow dye will have faded. Poulin spent her hours in the chair documenting the transformation for TikTok, where the video Lyberger shared has already been watched 140,000 times.
The video, unlike the style itself, has no expiration date. In the digital realm, tattoo content has gone viral during the pandemic, a period defined by limited access to salons and stylists. Internet enthusiasm for these styles caused a spike in demand in Los Angeles, a city filled with entertainers and influencers in search of the spotlight.
Reina DeMoss, a colorist who specializes in punk hair, thinks of hair tattooing as an “internet age” update to a staple subcultural hairstyle. It harks back to the British and American punk styles of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when extreme beauty practices flourished in the wake of economic devastation and national unrest.
“The buzz cut is a form of rebellion and of disconnecting yourself from politics, society or your 9-to-5 job,” DeMoss said. “Walking around with a nearly bald head is a statement, but adding in art, technique and meaning elevates it to another level entirely.” With vivid dyes and clipper carvings, hair tattooing re-imagines the minimalist, authoritarian buzz cut as a canvas for maximal adornment and individualized expression.
“Coronavirus put a lid on all of us,” said Janine Ker, a self-described “artist who does hair.” “It just makes you want to explode and change and get out!” Ker is best known for creating the rainbow leopard hair tattoo that Latin pop star J. Balvin wore at his 2019 Coachella performance. A pioneer of the trend, Ker has been sharing photographs of her multilayered styles, which combine complex hair sculpting techniques with up to three layers of dye and processing, since 2016.
“I wanted to overcome the limitations of hair as a medium and create something that would really shock people,” she said.
Ker said it took years before her alternative beauty looks captured the attention of a more mainstream audience. She shared a theory about their popularity during the pandemic: “Hair is the only thing we have control over right now. You look in the mirror and see that you’ve changed something or made a difference in your life.”
Paris Helena, a 26-year-old beauty photographer who described the buzz cut as a form of “hair liberation,” was eager to take the classic quarantine cut into a more artistic realm and reached out to Jordan Paige, a stylist and friend who also owns Thair Salon. The result was a series of hair tattoos inspired by famous paintings, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
She captured the styles in a series of self-portraits and said hair tattooing provided a vital creative outlet and incited human connection while in isolation. “It was a way for me to spark a conversation with somebody random on the street, from 6 feet away,” Helena said.
Reactions from strangers were overwhelmingly positive, perhaps because, she said, “we see less of everything nowadays, including faces and people, which makes us appreciate the little things more.”
Punk-inspired hairstyles weren’t always so well received. Stylist Kimberly Ibbotson, 27, who specializes in vivid color, recalls being bullied in her teenage years for her embrace of untraditional hues. Tolerance of alternative beauty practices like hair tattooing, Ibbotson said, is much higher now.
“I feel like a lot of people were hesitant to take risks because of what other people might think,” she said. But these days, vivid hair color is “universally accepted,” she said. “People today are so much more themselves.”
Attitudes toward men’s grooming have also shifted significantly, spawning a growing population of men who are interested in more androgynous or experimental styles, like hair tattooing.
“Barbers are getting into it because they see the potential in it not only as a creative outlet but as a financial opportunity,” Ibbotson said.
Julius Arriola, who is known as Caesar and who collaborates with Ibbotson, is a barber who has capitalized on that potential. A hair tattooist and owner of All Hail Studio, he draws inspiration from early adopter Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star, and caters mostly to male clientele from the streetwear and hip-hop worlds.
Arriola charges a flat rate of $1,000 for hair tattoos that will take more than four hours; some of his intricate artworks take up to eight hours to complete. (Arriola’s rate is more than double the industry standard of approximately $400 for a four-hour hair tattoo.)
“Everybody thinks we’re absolute lunatics for doing it, but that’s the beauty of it all,” he said
Arriola said his clients often get hair tattoos to mark a special occasion. “For men, hair color is about staking a claim in your identity,” he said. “Every time someone sits down in my chair, they’re given an opportunity to reinvent themselves.” One of Arriola’s regular clients, Jordan Brent, a 30-year-old creative director, described his motivation in a phone interview: “The dye makes me feel less invisible.” Jessica Jewel, a colorist who has recently collaborated with barber Charli Böll to create hair tattoos for actress Ruby Rose and rapper Saweetie, described their hair tattoo clientele as “edgy, out-of-this-world people who aren’t afraid to put themselves out there and be looked at.” And while Los Angeles is a known hair tattooing hub, both Jewel and Böll were eager to clarify that these styles are being recreated and worn around the world.
“The pandemic has really unleashed people’s artistic abilities,” Böll said. “People are painting on anything now, including heads. It’s made everybody a hairdresser.”