A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
Sitting in the third chair at a barbershop on the ground floor of a house in Vila Brasilândia, in northern São Paulo, Dom Pedro is getting a haircut and trying to stay cool in the 86-degree weather. He tries to do this at least once a month. Sporting a black cloak to protect his clothes, he watches as his barber works on a haircut that resembles a crown―the blindado, or “bulletproof” cut.
The hairstyle is rather simple: a high fade pompadour with sharp angles at the temple. All it takes is a comb and three cans of wash-out dye like the one used during Brazil's Carnaval and at children’s birthday parties. For $80 Brazilian reais [$20.45 USD], the 11-year-old boy leaves the barbershop in style, ready to turn some heads at school.
Dom Pedro is only one among many young men who come in droves to see Ariel Franco. The barber is in such high demand that he had to move his barbershop to a new location. “When I got here, there were exposed bricks and plaster,” he recalls. “I improvised some last-minute decorations, but I want to tidy things up in the coming year.”
“Four years ago, I couldn’t even dream of the life I’m living now,” Franco, who has already sealed a deal with two US sponsors, says. Back then, he was at a provisional detention facility in Vila Independência, serving time for dealing drugs. At the end of each of his Instagram videos, he brings his index finger to his lips, asking for silence―a gesture dedicated to those who didn’t believe he could get this far. “It’s dedicated to everyone who doubted I could beat the odds.”
Drug dealing, prison, and solitary confinement: the journey to the barbershop
Franco is the first of five siblings, the children Dona Neuza and Seu Genario raised in Jardim Carombé, a neighborhood in the north side of São Paulo. While his father worked as a security guard, Neuza took care of the house, watched the kids, and made candied apples every afternoon.
One of those afternoons, when Franco was seven years old, his mom covered an apple in caramel coating, put it on a stick, and handed it to him. He took the present, went out, and sold it. When he got back home, he gave the money to his mom and asked, “Mom, could you do something for me? Make me some more candy apples every day. Can you do it?” She did it, and he sold each one of them.
Between the ages of seven and 13, Franco spent the majority of his time on the streets, walking up and down the neighborhood. When he was 14, he started dealing drugs. Instead of selling ice pops and candy apples, he had a gun, a wad of money, a motorcycle, and a plethora of contacts. At 19, he was at the height of his criminal life. That’s when he was arrested by the police during a protective sweep and was sent to jail for two years.
It was only in prison that Franco started working at the barbershop and practicing his craft. “My mind was in turmoil and I was revolted. That was when a friend said, ‘You’ve been here for so long! Why don’t you start cutting some hair to relax a bit?’ So I started cutting hair and found myself.”
Franco declined to tell us exactly what happened, but he wound up spending 15 days in solitary confinement. While waiting for a transfer to Presidente Venceslau, a maximum security facility, he prayed for divine intervention. He vowed to never go back to a life of crime and to spend the rest of his days working as a barber. Shortly thereafter, a judge reviewed his case and considered his good behavior.
“I was released on November 24, 2014. The next day, I remembered my friend had some hair clippers and asked if I could borrow them,” he recalls. From then on, he kept moving forward. He started cutting hair at his house, then moved to a bigger place, and met a young woman named Laís, who had become his mother’s friend while she waited in line to go visit him in jail. They later married and had two daughters.
Near a Brasilândia community known as Inferninho ("Little Hell"), Franco rented part of a large house and put up some makeshift wallpaper to simulate exposed bricks. He cleaned up the place, put his seven certificates up on the wall, and installed three mirrors and three chairs next to a couch where clients can wait for their turn.
Today, he has two helpers at his barbershop. Bruno Aparecido Barbosa, age 22, has been working with him for two years now. Barbosa had seen a “Help Wanted” sign at Franco's old barbershop and stopped freelancing to learn more about his technique.
César Martins, age 30, is a new hire who left Ilha Comprida, a coastal city in the state of São Paulo, two months ago. As soon as he was able to put some money aside, he brought his wife and son to the capital city; at present, they live together near the barbershop. Both Barbosa and Martins have seized upon an opportunity that many barbers in Brazil wish they could have had.
The art of cutting hair
Franco is booked through April and has trips scheduled for Italy, Chile, and Argentina, among other places in Latin America.
After first falling in love with barbering, he was eager to create something nobody had ever seen before. He started studying, experimenting with new hairstyles on his clients, and following the latest fashionable trends. That was when he discovered the pompadour style.
The “Elvis toupee” became a hit in 2016 and his clients started asking for that haircut. However, they soon became frustrated because the hairstyle doesn’t last long. Franco saw his chance and developed a technique that allowed the hairstyle to remain intact for up to a week and a half, deciding to add some strong fade-out colors to the look. The cut took Brasilândia by storm. "Everything that has color in it becomes art,” Franco says.
“It’s the hottest thing at weekend dance parties right now,” he confirms when I ask how popular the hairstyle actually is. “Sometimes I go to the mall or the grocery store and people recognize me. Some have even asked for an autograph. I never thought it could happen!”
O rei das mechas, or the “King of Locks,” as some of his fans call him, doesn’t see an end in sight. He wants to reach one million followers on Instagram, become an ambassador for international brands, and establish a franchise to enhance his business image. Laís, his wife, started working as his personal assistant and takes care of his schedule while he makes Instagram videos and goes in and out of meetings. Through trial and error, they’re learning how to become successful digital influencers together.
“Everybody’s been looking me up, like you guys did. We’re learning as we go. It’s all about experimenting.” To date, Franco has sculpted a toaster oven, Thor’s hammer, and even a motorcycle on his clients’ hair to prove his hairstyles can remain intact and truly stand out. Now that his hairstyles have become the hottest trend throughout São Paulo, he believes it's time to introduce his funky Brazilian style to audiences worldwide.
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This article originally appeared on VICE BR.