Crushing on hair stylist Rocky Handspiker and his Modern Lovers Hair Shop
Then I met Rocky.
Our styling chair discussions aren’t your typical salon banter. Among many topics, we’ve talked about how he spent a year working in a salon in Japan that specialized in creating black hair looks on Asian hair. I’ve walked into the salon to find Rocky hand threading a mustache for his costuming class he was taking “on the side” of running his own business and raising a child. Rocky is anything but boring, and that is why I trust him.
How long have you been cutting hair?
I started in 1982, just messing around with friends. People wanted punk, new wave, and hip hop inspired cuts, and I ended up being the guy to see. At the time, British punk style was fusing with NY break-dancing culture, and it seemed like taking scissors into our own hands (well, mine mostly) was the best way to get it.
Where did you learn?
I started with basic training at the Marvel School of Beauty, and then moved on to advanced training with various academies like Vidal Sassoon and Toni & Guy. On top of that, hands on experiences and other creative challenges really helped me to perfect my skills. Things like seminars for hairdressers, fashion shows, pageants, music videos, photo shoots, and hairstyling competitions. However, I’ve technically been working in salons since I was fourteen years old—around the same time I had started cutting my friends’ hair. An older girl with a David Bowie smile had heard about me through the grapevine and I soon became a shampoo boy at the shop she worked at with other funky stylists. Eventually I decided that committing to cutting hair was something I was serious about and took up formal classical foundation training.
Did you have any mentors or other inspiring people who helped you along the way?
Each salon I’ve worked at has had an incredible impact on my development. I’ve been inspired by many people and experiences, but one that really stands out was Pamela Neal. She took over for renowned stylist John Steinberg at the Rainbow Room in Toronto, which was a punk and new wave styled salon known as not just any place for cutting hair. Fashion, music, art, and media all came together at the Rainbow Room. It opened in 1976 and brought the British fashion scene to Toronto, moving away from the hippie era of Yorkville. Eventually it became where the Queen Street Scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s came to get their hair done. When Jimi Imij and Robert Pieter of Coupe Bizzarre brought their camp from Montreal to set up on Queen Street West in Toronto in the ’90s, I had the pleasure of working with and learning from them.
What has traveling as a stylist been like?
I worked in salons in Tokyo for one year, which was totally fascinating. There were lots of different styles meeting in a Japanese environment because of the many travellers and influences of outside music and culture on looks. I spent time at a black salon owned by a group of people formerly from Brooklyn, who needed me to help with their European clients. I was working alongside Japanese stylists who were having me translate hip hop lyrics for them—it was kind of crazy.
I worked in London, England, which was a really dynamic experience. I had the chance to do hair for photo shoots and videos, and worked in a salon on King’s Road. Living in London and experiencing the art scene there alongside my work was pretty amazing as well.
Tell me about your experiences hairstyling in the ’80s and ’90s.
At one point I worked at a three-chair salon in a fashion market managed by Pamela Neal, but when this closed I opened a small shop in Graffiti Alley in Toronto called Salon DNA. The space was also home to rave promoters X-Static. Because of this connection, during the 11 months that I owned the shop I was setting up hair styling booths at raves. I did a similar gig at the first Lollapalooza when I worked at the Rainbow Room with Pamela. We did the hair of almost 9000 festivalgoers. I moved to England after my time with Salon DNA came to an end. When I got back to Toronto in 1995, I worked at Coupe Bizzarre for 12 years.
How long has Modern Lovers Hair Shop been open?
We opened in 2010. After all those years with Coupe Bizzarre this was naturally the next step. I was originally looking to open up a sake bar with a friend, but when that fell through I decided to start my own shop. I had been working at Coupe Bizzarre and helping to train stylists there and was ready to branch out on my own, but if it wasn’t for finding this place through searching for real estate for the sake bar, I wouldn’t have left when I did. It was too good to be true. This location made sense—people come to Kensington Market for haircuts, among many other things, and the space was perfect for what I needed. This actually used to be a barbershop called Guerrero’s a while before I moved in here, so it’s kind of fitting for me to open another hair shop in this space.
What is it like working alone like you do now as opposed to working in a group setting like you have in the past?
Working one on one with clients is complete paradise—a total experience in hair styling. Early in the move people would ask me if I got lonely—never! I also have a music studio in the back room so this is a total creative space for me. However, working in a salon alongside other stylists, like I did when I worked at Coupe Bizzarre, has its advantages; the social life is interesting—you learn how to work well with others and a lot about people in general. You also draw inspiration and learn things from the other stylists around you. You can come up with ideas together for projects or looks, learn new tricks and invent things together. There’s always someone’s hair to cut. At Coupe, people came for the creative, artistic haircuts that I specialize in today. That, among many other things, has had a lasting impact on how I work.
Visit Rocky at Modern Lovers Hair Shop.
photography // Angela Lewis
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