This story was originally published on VICE Serbia.
For a few months now, a strange print ad has been making its way around the streets of Belgrade. The ad writes: "I will be buying hair (natural, 40 cm or longer) on October 16th. Only on October 16th." No phone number – just the address of a hair salon called "Kruz". I tried googling the salon and found nothing, so I picked up my camera and headed there.
Whoever was buying the hair, he chose to do so on the same day Putin visited Belgrade visit, which meant that there was no public transport half of the city streets were closed. Given the cryptic directions printed on the ad, I wondered how badly they wanted that hair.
Despite the obstacles, I did manage to find Kruz, where I found Dragan, its owner, standing at the door looking bored and alone. Probably because he was desperate for company, Dragan made me some coffee and told me he had nothing to do with the print ad. The mysterious hair buyer is a Ukrainian man from Donetsk, whom Dragan rents the salon out to from time to time. He wasn't there at the moment so I decided to wait for a while.
According to Dragan, there was little hope Sergey would agree to tell me his story so Dragan told me his instead. Turns out Sergey used to own a chain of hair salons in Loznica, a small city in western Serbia. He closed all stores when he stopped having more than 250 walk-ins per day and said, "Fuck it, I will move to Belgrade". Staring at the "Long live Tito" graffiti on the building opposite his salon, he begun to tell me about how he came to rent the place to the Sergey for £20 per day.
And, just like in a movie, that was the moment Sergey arrived, instantly blowing me off and telling me not to dare take a single photo of him.
"No good marketing, no good marketing," he said in a mixture of Serbian and Russian. Everything about this place seemed insane enough, so I figured I'd oblige.
Dragan was watching the military parade taking in place in Belgrade that day live on a small, blackoand-white TV. As the news anchor announced Putin had just landed in Serbia, the first customer arrived.
Herself a hairdresser, Ruza carried a bag full of natural hair. Nervously, she pulled four plaits out of it. Sergey looked at them for a couple of minutes, then he threw two plaits right back into the bag – apparently he doesn't buy coloured hair. He measured the length of the other two other and then placed them on a small scale.
There was tension in the air, as everyone looked at Sergey. "£60 for the two," he said and we all exhaled and smiled at each other like we had been in this together all along. Ruza told me she collected the hair her customers left behind. "Making some extra cash is always a good idea," she said.
As we waited for the next customer and after the second beer Sergey and Dragan had, Sergey agreed to talk to me.
He was buying hair for "some Ukrainian company" and that job earns him somewhere between £250-700 pounds per month, which is not enough to live by. He usually drives to Serbia and that journeyt akes about two days.
When Dragan jokingly told him his president had landed in Belgrade, Sergey cocked an imaginary gun, directed it to Putin's face on the small TV screen and "BOOM".
"That's not my president," he told Dragan.
The people who came in next got much less for their hair. Radojka, an 83-year-old granny who walked a long way since there was no public transport, and only got £8. The next old lady got £5. But they both walked out content and smiling.
"There's no money in Serbia. People will sell everything," Sergey said as he packed hair into a plastic bag.
Where the hair goes and what it's used for, Sergey doesn't know. The people who sold him their hair today also told me they didn't care about it.
What they might care about is the fact that, in Belgrade – depending on the hair salon – natural, untreated human hair, longer than 40 cm is usually sold for more than £150. It is later used for making wigs, extensions and similar things. Outside Serbia and the Balkans, wigs and extensions are worth way more than couple hundreds quiid. Ironically, according to the official Serbian Office of National Statistics reports, Serbia has been importing a lot of human hair in recent years.
When I started to figure out why Sergey was only promoting his business with print ads, a 24-year-old Mina entered the salon. Serge offered her £35 for her mother's long plaint and she declined.
"Mom is saving up for a trip abroad, so she asked me to sell her hair. But this guy is ridiculous, I went to another hair salon and they offered me £65 for this same plait," she told me after turning her back to Sergey.
I asked Sergey if people sometimes ask him for a better deal. "There are all sorts of people. It is not just grannies that come here, you know. We had a go-go dancer come in the other day and she asked for £1000. She was mental," he said.
About 30 minutes before Sergey decided to call it a day, the last customer walked in. His name was Igor and he looked like a right rocker dude. He brought in a pony tail he said he had proudly worn and taken care of for ten years. When he sold it to Sergey for £8 I felt a little sad.
"No, the price is not ok. But I came all the way here, so why not? I am like Samson – I was keeping my strength for myself until now. But then, I was like, I should pass this on to someone else. I just hope they won't use my hair to make poison. In our pagan culture we really care about our hair and nails – you must keep them safe because when someone takes it from you they can do all sorts of black magic with it. But I actually don't believe in that stuff," said Igor.
Sergey wasn't too happy with the day's catch. Not too many people came. Putin's visit and the rain didn't help. He packed his half empty bag and got to getting ready for the next day. He was going to visit other towns along the main Serbian highway, travelling all the way to the Southern part of Serbia – where average salary is even lower than in Belgrade.
More from Serbia: