There's a serious old-school 50s American flair to Bangkok's Craftsman Barber Shop. Outside, a red-and-white barber's pole turned slowly. James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," blared from the stereo. The heavily tattooed barbers favor the kind of slick backs, high and tights, and undercuts popular in the United States. The music is nostalgic mix of classic punk and soul. A bottle of Jameson sat behind the counter.
But the barbershop is plenty Thai too. The place smelled like lemongrass. A black-and-white portrait of King Rama IX hung on the wall. The conversation this afternoon hovered around the best night markets to drink some cold Singha and Chang beers in.
"What did you do last night," Danupat Lavanapipat, the shop's owner, asked a barber who was slowly scraping a straight razor across a customer's cheek.
"I went to the Huay Kwang night market," he said. "Watched a band. Had some beers."
Craftsman is part of an emerging crop of barber shops challenging traditional standards of "Thainess" in Bangkok. The shops, places like Three Brothers in Mo Chit, Black Amber in Thong Lor, Five Prows in Silom, Sxissors at the Huay Kwang Train Market, are emblematic of a new generation of young Thai men who are discarding some of the conservative norms that still hold significant sway in modern Thailand.
Appearance is everything in Thailand. It's a country where job advertisements include a required height, weight, age, and gender. Way back in 1972, the government issued a regulation on the allowed length of students' hair. Boys were required to wear crew cuts no longer than five centimeters long. Girls were allowed to have hair no longer than the base of their neck. Today, these outdated rules still set the norm at many Thai schools.
These rules dictated how barbershops initially evolved in Thailand. A barber's job was to offer their customers one of the limited selection of acceptable haircuts. So of course, the same haircuts had a habit of dictating men's style well after high school. When students argued tht the government should relax the rules, the country's old-school barbers said they were worried that no one would show up for a fresh buzz every few weeks. Long hair, they said, would always be dirty on little kids.
Now, barbershops like Craftsman are showing Thai men that there's more out there than just the high school buzzcut. The barbers at Craftsman offer customers pompadours, under-cuts, high and tights, and slick-backs. They all know their stuff too. The barbers will tell you about Elvis and James Dean. About how to cut a line along the part to create a "hard part" and give the pompadour some extra definition. About what Thai men now want in a haircut.
"Most Thais want slick backs," Danupat said. "They want something more stylish."
He's tall, slender, and covered in old-school flash tattoos—including one of the classic barbershop pole spinning outside his shop. He's dressed in an open polo shirt and his hair is pushed to one side. Danupat explained that Thais prefer slick-backs to under-cuts because the tight fades associated with undercuts reminds many Thais of school-age buzz cuts.
Cultural norms further complicate the situation. In Thailand, you're not supposed to touch the head of someone who is older of you or of a higher status. Barbers are sort of given a pass, which allows them to cross cultural boundaries within Thai society with relative ease. But, Danupat said, most of Craftsman's clientele are cut from the same stock.
"It's mainly working people," Danupat said. "Usually mid-twenties and into their thirties. It's a mix of Farang and Thai. Everybody needs a haircut every month, so we have repeat customers."
This whole trend started with Never Say Cutz—a spot that popularized the whole notion of a hip barbershop in the first place. That shop has a more hip-hop feel to it. The shop is associated with the Thai rap group Thaitaninum. Today, it's Bangkok's flagship barbershop.
Danupat actually got his start at Never Say Cutz. He enrolled in a vocational school near Lumpinee Park and in a year's time he graduated with a vocational degree and a spot at Never Say Cutz. A few years later, he moved to Black Amber, a Victorian-themed barbershop in Bangkok's Hi-So Thong Lor neighborhood. Then, once he finally felt confident enough, Danupat struck out on his own and opened Craftsman.
It was a decision that afforded Danupat the luxury of living a relatively easy life. Barbershops are more or less recession proof in Thailand. In no time the shop started doing 15-20 cuts a day, eventually getting so popular that they had to open a second location. And it's profitable too. Most of Craftsman's barbers make between 25,000-30,000 Thai Baht per month, about ten-times the national minimum wage.
"A barber's life is really relaxing," Danupat said. "We drink. We work out. We go on motorbike trips. It's sabai jai—a nice, relaxing life. I'll be a barber my entire life."