If you've been a New Yorker for any amount of time, you've at least seen the sign at the bottom of the steps, the checkered, nearly glittered lettering that reads "Astor Place." If you've descended these steps in the East Village, you've entered what is now a cavernous barbershop, Astor Place Hairstylists, a 75-chair warehouse that seems to have a barber for everybody—of every culture, taste, attitude. Originally begun with five workers in the late 1940s, it's evolved into what this city likes to call an "institution," a labyrinthine place that features cut-out swag coating the walls, large televisions, and a karaoke machine. It's one of those joints that conjures an old-school Manhattan in your imagination, and a spot, should it never succumb to the forces of the marketplace, that people will write long obituaries about.
Specifically, though, If you go there around lunchtime, and peek into the storage closet, you'll see an imposing man in an undershirt, a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. This is Michael "Big Mike" Saviello, who has been the manager at Astor Place Hairstylists for close to 40 years.
He's a funny, bubbly dude, and he's also now the subject of Nicholas Heller's new, 12-minute-long documentary, Big Mike Takes a Lunch—about how, at nearly 60, this working-class guy took the advice of seemingly every therapist on the planet and recently found the time to reinvigorate a lost hobby. Big Mike enjoyed making art in high school, but, as he would say, "life happened"—and now, at nearly 60, he's taken his passion back up again. For a year and a half, he hasn't missed a day.
A native of the city, Heller calls himself "the unofficial talent scout of New York"—his popular Instagram page features interviews, snippets, and gags from characters and weirdos of all walks of life around the big city—and Big Mike Takes a Lunch, which is live now on Vimeo, is a natural extension of that.
Ahead of the first public screening and showcase for Big Mike's artwork this Saturday, VICE chatted with Heller about the culture of New York City, how to balance work and life, what's too much wine, and why it's never too late to do what you love.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Was this project derived from your Instagram?
Nicolas Heller: So, just a little bit of backstory: I make my living doing branded content, commercials, and editorial work, and the Instagram has always just been for fun. The purpose of it, really, is to keep myself sane, doing something I'm passionate about, and I would like to think creative. But also, more importantly, it's to help lift up all the people who make the account possible in the city of New York. It's always been a fun thing; I don't do any sponsored posts. I try to keep it very separate from my paid work. But I saw an opportunity in Big Mike's story to create a proper film—not something that's just going to live on Instagram. When I learned about his story, I sat on it for a little, and then the stars kind of aligned one week: A cinematographer who I've been wanting to work with for a while hit me up and asked if I had anything brewing that I wanted to work on with him, and I pitch him Mike's story, and he was totally for it. Mike, of course, was down to let us shoot. I would say it's the first proper documentary I've done on an Instagram subject—and, to be honest, he wasn't even really a subject on my Instagram. I had posted him a few times, but it's kind of hard to capture this character in 60 seconds or less. He's less palpable than some of the other people, so I felt, like, a 12-minute film on Mike would be more appropriate.
How do you go about finding subjects, in general?
Usually, friends I've met along the way. I was born and raised in New York, in Union Square, and I've always been attracted to unique individuals—characters. A lot of the people on my page are performance artists who I kind of stumble across and film, and spark a relationship through that. Or it's someone who I've seen over the past few years and started a friendship with, and they eventually allowed, or encouraged, me to film them. A place where I meet a lot of interesting people is at Anthony and Sons Panini Shoppe in Brooklyn. Through going there the past few years, I've met a lot of interesting people, like Charlie the Wolf, Luca Two Times, and Ralph Colucci.
Can you give me a vibe of Astor Place Hairstylists overall?
It's become my home away from home, especially in the winter. I love to just go through and chill. Thank God, they let me. I guess anyone can chill there, if they pay to get their hair cut. But it's really hard to describe. You really do, though, have someone for everybody there. Mike calls it—and he says it in the film, too—he calls it the United Nations of haircutters. You have Valentino, who's like 80 years old, and he's been at Astor Place for 50 years and has never taken a day off, except when he was literally in the hospital. He'll be giving a woman a beehive haircut, and next to him, you'll have Lou, who's this younger Latino guy, giving somebody a high-top fade. The clash of cultures there creates a very unique environment. [Laughs] Especially during the World Cup. It's all fun there.
Did the documentary start with the premise that Big Mike was painting during his lunch breaks, or did that structure come later?
So I've been going to Astor Place to get my haircut since I was, like, nine. And I never formed any relationships with the barbers there because it's the type of place you go, and you're kind of intimidated by it, because everyone is just on their grind, in this very New York way. So I would always go there to get a quick haircut and pay 15 bucks—I mean, when I was a kid, it was like nine bucks, and now, it's like 18 bucks. But it's place where you make of it what you want to make of it. If you want to stay there for a long time and chill and talk shit, you can do that. But if want to be in and out, you can do that as well.
For the longest time, then, I would just go in, get my hair cut, and leave. But about three years ago, I noticed the shop followed me on Instagram. So I messaged them, and told them I had been getting my hair cut there forever, and they told me to come in—and if I wanted to take some behind-the-scenes video or whatever, that I could. Eventually, I became very close with my current barber, Jeff, and he introduced me to everybody, including Big Mike. I always knew him as the sort of imposing man behind the front desk—behind the iconic Astor Place "we speak every language" sign—and who points you to whichever barber to go to. It wasn't until, though, about a year and a half ago that I was getting my hair cut from Jeff, and I went to go use the bathroom, and on my way over there, I saw that the storage area was open. And I guess because I'm a generally curious person, I looked inside, and I spotted Big Mike there—with his undershirt on, and drinking a bottle of wine, painting. It like was like Van Gogh–esque painting. At this point, he had just started painting, so I took it as an opportunity to speak to him—and it turned out he was a great, charismatic, bubbly person. Then I would come back every few weeks, every few months, to check on his progress. I made a couple of videos of him on my phone, too.
[Laughs] Then, finally, a few months ago, after seeing the sheer number of paintings he's created, I was even inspired to start painting myself. I didn't have a place to paint, so he let me use the storage area, and I created my first painting there. From that, I don't know—I just caught the bug.
How are you distributing Big Mike?
I mean, I was debating whether or not I wanted to, like, submit it to Tribeca, or just putting it up on Vimeo, which is ultimately what I did. We wanted to create more of an experience out of this, which I'm sure you saw we've the first public screening combined with Big Mike's first art show.
So, wait: What is this screening exactly?
Something we always talked about was him having an art show—but if he had an art show it would have to be at Astor Place. I just felt, like, that would be such an iconic event. Astor Place in and of itself is a museum. To have his work there, where it was created, would be a very special thing. We've been planning it for about a week and a half.
We're also going to have 120 bottles of wine there, which is kind of insane. [ Laughs] Mike was pretty adamant about that. He struck some kind of deal, but it allowed him to get ten cases of wine, which is 120 bottles.
How many people are attending?
I have no idea, honestly. It'll probably be a bottle of wine a person, though.
It's funny: When I asked Mike how many people he was bringing, he only put down four people on the guest list, which I thought was funny. [Laughs] Like, I invited 70 of my friends or whatever. I was like, "How do you know only have four people?" And, he's like, "My wife, my kid." And I was, like, "Don't you have any friends?" But his whole life is there, at Astor Place. All his friends are there. He gets to hang out with them all day, every day. He's been the manager there for 37 years; his uncle had worked there, and brought him in.
Oh, and another thing, which isn't mentioned in the documentary: Mike commutes about two hours to and from Astor Place, so four hours total. He lives somewhere in Pennsylvania. And I'm pretty sure he works six days a week.
It really is his life.
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