The ad asking Belgradians to donate their hair
This story was originally published on VICE Serbia
This fall, a strange printed ad made its way around the streets and telephone poles of Belgrade. "I will be buying hair (natural, 40 cm or longer) on October 16," it read. "Only on October 16." No phone number—just the address of a hair salon called Kruz. I tried googling the salon and found nothing of interest there, so I picked up my camera and headed down there to see what was going on.
Whoever this prospective hair buyer was, he was doing business on the same day Putin visited Belgrade, which meant that there was no public transportation available and half of the city streets were closed. Despite this, I managed to make my way to Kruz, where I found Dragan, the 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 named Sergey, whom Dragan rents the salon out to from time to time. He wasn't there at the moment so I decided to wait.
According to Dragan, there was little hope Sergey would agree to tell me his story so Dragan told me his instead. He used to own a chain of hair salons in Loznica, a small city in western Serbia, but when business slowed he said, "Fuck it, I'll move to Belgrade." Looking out 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 Sergey for $30 a day—and that's when Sergey himself arrived. I had barely said hello before he told me not to take his photo and declined to tell me anything.
"No good marketing, no good marketing," he said in a mixture of Serbian and Russian.
Dragan was watching the military parade taking in place in Belgrade on a small, black-and-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 colored 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. "$95 for the two," he said and we all exhaled and smiled at each other as if 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 had a couple of beers, Sergey agreed to talk to me.
He was buying hair for "some Ukrainian company," a job that earns him somewhere between $400 and $1,100 per month, which is not enough to live by. He usually drives to Serbia and that journey takes about two days.
When Dragan jokingly told him his president had landed in Belgrade, Sergey cocked an imaginary gun, pointed it to Putin's face on the small TV screen, and said "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, only got $13. The next old lady got $8. 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 told me they didn't care about that.
What they might care about is the fact that in Belgrade—depending on the hair salon—natural, untreated human hair that is longer than 40 cm is usually sold for more than $200. It is later used for making wigs, extensions, and similar things. Outside Serbia and the Balkans, wigs and extensions are worth way more than a couple hundred bucks. Ironically, according to the Serbian Office of National Statistics, Serbia has been importing a lot of human hair in recent years.
As I began to figure out why Sergey was only promoting his business with print ads, a 24-year-old Mina entered the salon. Sergey offered her $55 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 $100 for this same plait," she told me, 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 $1,500. 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 rocker. He brought in a ponytail he said he had proudly worn and taken care of for ten years. When he sold it to Sergey for $13, I felt a little sad.
"No, the price is not OK," said Igor. "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."
Sergey wasn't too happy with the day's catch. Putin's visit and the rain had meant that most Belgradians had chosen to stay at home. He packed his half empty bag and started preparing for the next day. He was going to visit more towns along the main Serbian highway, traveling all the way to the southern part of Serbia to do the same thing all over again.