Photos by Jason Ruiz.
A motorcycle zooms by the tiny store front studio that Angela Willcocks has called home for the past four months. The rumble of the exhaust pipe makes the wooden floor tremble as if an earthquake had struck North Long Beach. The outside noise causes the petite art teacher to raise her voice above the hum of its engine and the people arguing outside. This is an epicenter alright, and the seismic waves can be measured by the sketch lines of Willcock’s pencil.
Four months ago, Willcocks, who previously taught at Cal State Long Beach and is currently a professor of art at Redlands University, planted herself deep inside the neglected northernly part of the city. As part of an A LOT North initiative, she decided to depict the culture of barbershops in the city by photographing, interviewing and becoming one with the community to bring her animations to life. Her work, though, goes far beyond her exhibit that showed in a red cargo container during last weekend’s A LOT event.
“I didn’t want to come in and say here’s my animations on barber shops,” Willcocks said. “I wanted to come in and, this area is just blighted. The shop fronts are going down a dime a dozen. So my thought was, if I come up here, I’d rent a shop and open up my door and people can walk past and get introduced to the process of art.”
She chose barbershops for several reasons. The idea of the barbershop as a cultural staple and communal hub was foreign to Willcocks, who hails from Australia where they are less prevalent. While driving around Long Beach she couldn’t help but notice the massive number of barbershops, salons and hair product supply stores, especially on North Atlantic where she ended up renting her studio space.
“It really is amazing,” Willcocks said of the sheer number of shops in Long Beach. “They really are a huge culture of this area. And a culture we totally miss on.”
The barber, in her mind, is an overlooked component of our society and falls into the philosophical designation of otherness; the scissor snips and buzz of clippers lost in the noise of everyday life. Although she has lived in the United States for over 25 years, she still views herself as “the other,” making the decision to focus on the people who keep Long Beach’s hair-lines clean an easy one.
“Really, why I’m so interested in barber shops or doing animations like this is because I’m totally interested in the other,” Willcocks explained. “The other person that people don’t recognize that really impact our culture. I’ve always considered myself an other because I’m an immigrant and come from another country.”
She started introducing herself to shop owners, explaining her presence and requesting to take their photos. Her full-back tattoo (completed by Long Beach's own Kari Barba) served as an ice breaker when introducing herself to some of the more aggressive members of the community. “I’ve got better tattoos than you,” Willcocks would joke. Her ink seemed to lend an air of legitimacy to an otherwise out-of-place art teacher. From there, she was able to get to work.
There is Keith at Cream of the Crop barbershop next door, who Willcocks described as her personal protector as he has settled several disputes around her studio. And the reputable Quick a little farther south on Atlantic who meticulously cuts hair as rap music blares through the shop. And then there’s Luis at Latin Style Barber Shop, whose shop is adorned with deer heads and plays soothing jazz music, which has become a favorite of Willcocks'. Every two weeks, she’d go back to each shop, she'd interview,photograph and even have her two sons get haircuts at each establishment, all in the hope of capturing the essence of each shop.
She extracts the photos and uses parts of their personalities—which Willcocks said were clearly hanging on the walls of their shops—to create animations that reflected both their craft and the person. Deers prance behind Luis as he cuts hair, a dragon taken from a tattoo on another barber makes a cameo in his animation, and for Quick, Willcocks played off the fact that his movement of patrons' heads had a baptismal feel to it, so he became Jesus.
The immersion process wasn’t an easy one, and even after four months in the neighborhood, Willcocks still runs into resistance and questioning looks from patrons and employees. It took some time for the community to accept a middle-aged Australian woman snooping around their barbershops and snapping pictures of them getting haircuts. But slowly, the distrust, confusion—and in some cases outright hostility—have given way to curiosity. Every person she draws a picture of gets a copy of it, many of which end in frames at the shop or at their homes. She keeps her door unlocked so people passing by the storefront can walk in. They’re free to watch her work, turning area barbers into animations, or even get a free hands-on art lesson. She only asks one thing in return.
“They’ve got to let me take their picture,” Willcocks said.
The Australian native has made a career of traveling the world and displaying her artwork publicly. The spectrum of where her work has been displayed stretches from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (where she lived before moving to Los Angeles) to the streets of Southern California. Armed with a backpack, video projector and radio transmitter, Willcocks would project her animations on the sides of buildings, insides of stores and even at Long Beach SoundWalk. Now, the window into her art is double sided, the community looking in, and Willcocks looking out into the non-stop traffic of people on North Atlantic.
The signage from the previous business that existed at her cramped storefront-studio still hangs in the windows. In the middle of the tiny unit that she rents for $500 a month sits an easel and a table littered with art supplies, all of which she tears down at the end of the night because of prior theft. There have been mothers, gang members and drunks who have stumbled into her studio, all of whom she welcomes as long as they pay the price of letting her photograph them.
She admits that as an artist, she’s done a lot of stupid things in her career, and perhaps immersing herself into such an extreme “other” environment may have been one of them. In addition to being robbed, there have been fights inside and outside of her studio, ones she never could’ve stopped without Keith, the barber and default-bouncer next door. But in the process of trying to grasp barbershop culture, she discovered a community that was in need of exposure to art. They may not understand it, nor be meant to understand it, but art, to Willcocks, is for everyone.
“Art is very elitist and I don’t think it should be elitist,” Willcocks said. “It should be open to the public. Certainly sitting here in this shop front has opened my eyes to new ways of looking at art and how art can be a part of a community.”
And this neighborhood is where art needs to be the most open, which is why she chose it for her home base. “I can give more back to the community up here then I ever could in downtown,” Willcocks said.
With the A LOT initiative over and her project complete, Willcocks is hoping to keep the space for another year to continue to introduce curious pedestrians to the world of art. She’s in the process of trying to secure grants and is contemplating crowd-funding options to make keeping the studio space financially realistic. But as long as she can afford the space, she’ll continue taking pictures, sketching portraits of people who step into her shop, and easing herself into the culture of the "other."
“I have so many people just stop and look in my window, stop and ask me what am I doing? How do I do it? And I think that’s so important as sort of a starting point to introduce them to art. And not art to make money, not art to do anything, but art as a cultural experience.”