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REVIEW: The Haircut Before the Party by Zoe Catherine Kendall

Lewis and Richard, the two friendly faces behind The Haircut Before the party or THCBTP, have set up a radical hair salon just behind London's busy Commercial Street. It's radical because the haircuts are free. It's both an interesting and a very welcome concept at a time when you expect to pay through your teeth for most things in life: the offer of a service without the expectation of handing over a sum of money in return. But these boys aren't doing it for the kicks, they have a point to prove about the nature of exchange.

THCBTP is open to anyone and everyone who calls up to make an appointment or who happens to saunter past the salon on Toynbee Street during opening hours, which are Thursday to Saturday, 12-6pm. I could tell during my short stay that they were already a big hit with the locals. People seemed to value what they were doing, fostering a sense of community amongst other things. Here is a place you can go to talk, not just about your upcoming holiday or your exciting love life, no.  Here, there is no need to feign a story to conceal your embarrassment about not being able to afford a holiday this year, or make up a so called boyfriend or girlfriend because you aren't romantically involved right now. Instead, Lewis and Richard are ready and waiting to exchange anecdotes and ideas about things that really matter to you – like debt for instance. And the upcoming month will see them run with this topic, beginning to explore the issue of housing, and how where you live can shape your social and economic position.


I went in for a trim and to find out a little more about the project which is funded and produced by Artsadmin as a participant of the Two Degrees Festival. One of the first things I asked Lewis, the side of the duo responsible for cutting my hair, was whether he had any ulterior motives, because it's so unusual to be offered something of value for free, and I wondered, could there be a catch? In retrospect I think that type of reasoning speaks more of the lack of friendship, trust and commitment in our current exchange system than it does of my suspicions or the motives on display. Lewis summed this one up nicely for me by saying that there were several different modes of interaction, some which rely solely on exchange and debt, others based on a hierarchy, and another sort, which he loosely referred to as embodying a sense of communism, and which involve an investment, perhaps in the relationship itself. So if Lewis does have an ulterior motive, it's simply that of friendship. How refreshing.   

So, through the act of offering free haircuts in exchange for a meeting and sharing of outlook and  ideas about the current socio-economic and socio-political climate which so clearly affects us all, Lewis and Richard are opening up the doors of their temporary salon to the renewal of values such as friendship and local initiative, offering the local community the opportunity and the time to think together and to challenge the very nature of their system of exchange – a core interaction for which our society hangs in the balance. The investment of time and trust over that of a simple monetary transaction might have the potential to change the very foundations of our democratic state. Perhaps that's thinking big, but change has to start somewhere, why not in your local barber shop? It would appear that these boys are not only home grown hairdressers but home grown statesmen too.


I should probably mention that Lewis and Richard learnt to cut hair the good old fashioned way, on their friends and family, at home and in social contexts, along with the aid of you tube clips! It's just another example of the levels of personal empowerment that these boys so aptly set for us. One interesting fact that Lewis shared with me is that you don't need to be qualified to be a hairdresser, you can literally just open up shop. At that point I started to understand exactly how I was being invited into a space that promotes trust and commitment. Not only was I investing my time and my worldly experience into an exchange that could pay back both me and the local community three times over, I was also entrusting myself to the capable hands of these young thinkers. Already perched on the chair with stripy gown in place, I thought if they could cut as well as they could cogitate, I was probably in safe hands. I am pleased to say the haircut came out very well, and six weeks down the line I’ve just booked in to get another trim.

Another thing I sought to question Lewis and Richard on was their inspiration. One way in which the boys have chosen to display this is through their name and the flag that they have emblazoned it across. At first glance you might think THCBTP simply refers to that sense of pride in personal grooming that many of us share before stepping out on a Friday night, which of course it does. But if you read in to it just a little further, there is that sense of party political camaraderie and spirit lurking in their salon flag and in the ethos of the project itself. Take it one step further and you see that acronym which stands for something bigger, suggesting a sense of empowerment through the unity of its constituent parts. Some may be quick to say this harks back to archaic communist values, methods which have already been tried and have failed, but instead of a sickle, here we see a patchwork globe and a pair of scissors, and within that the implication for a new sort of value – local community and its impact, share in and potential effect on global politics.


Before popping down to the salon I added a link to their project on my facebook wall, thinking that such a great concept deserves to be heard. Within minutes, a friend of mine had replied saying black people have been doing this kind of thing for years, hanging out in hair salons, enjoying the social benefit as much as the haircutting. Having lived in Hackney myself I knew this to be true, a sense of community does linger around hair salons as though they are social hubs as much as anything else. Lewis and Richard have lived in Hackney and Camberwell, two places well know for the richness of their black communities, and are pleased to acknowledge that observing this phenomenon, which seems to be culturally specific, was a big inspiration for them. I think it's great, especially at a moment such as this when so much negative attention has been drawn to those very same black communities, that we are also being set a wonderful example by them and by Lewis and Richard, about community spirit and the benefits of localised social structures. This kind of activity provides people with a space and place to talk, think and to unite in identifying specific issues, needs and solutions, allowing people as the boys say 'to challenge the demands made on us by dominant powers.' And the best bit? You don't need money to take part, just a sense of gathering together.

The Haircut Before the Party is a temporary hair salon which will be open to the public for free haircuts and conversations about current socio-economic issues until early November 2011. They are open Thursday to Saturday, 12-6pm and can be found at 26-28 Toynbee Street, E1. To book an appointment call 07928072825.

To find out more about the project and related events visit THCBTP online at thehaircutbeforetheparty.net

To find out more about Artsadmin online at www.artsadmin.co.uk

To find out more about the Two Degrees Festival online at www.artsadmin.co.uk/twodegrees

For more of my artistic meanderings, visit my blog.


All photographs by Zoe Catherine Kendall



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