Rob Ferrel, better known as Rob the Original specialises in Chuck Close–level photorealistic portraits shaved onto the backs of people’s heads. This has brought him world renown, corporate sponsorship and 69,000 fiercely loyal Instagram followers. Ferrel has cut and trimmed designs from Jesus to Tupac to Batman and, a recent fan favourite, World Cup football players into the heads of fans ranging from two to 40 years old. His work is one of the most practical and democratic forms of visual art – as long as you have hair, Ferrel will shave someone else’s very recognizable face onto it.
When I catch him on the phone from San Antonio, Texas, he’s preparing for a competition in which makeup artists, regular hairstylists, design hairstylists, and basically anyone involved in the beauty industry will compete for fame, trophies, and maybe even their own corporate sponsorship. But during our conversation Ferrel emphatically insists that he was the first person to ever do a hair portrait and he’s so damn good at it I think I might just believe him. What’s even more amazing, though, is that he hasn’t kept the technical secrets behind his rare talent to himself. Instead, he travels the country teaching the technique at conferences. Like any good barber, Ferrel is talkative and friendly, and above all fame and trophies, he really just has one goal in mind: To see the hair design industry grow into the celebrated world-renowned scene it was always meant to be.
VICE: Is the hair design scene a big community?
Rob Ferrel: It’s a huge scene, but it’s been underground for a while. Now it’s starting to come out. It’s so awesome to be a part of this era because I’ve been doing these designs for at least eight years and now people are starting to see. Everybody’s amazed because they’ve never seen this type of work. Me and my employees, we’re so used to it. We know it’s good, but we don’t get impressed like we used to. Don’t get me wrong, whenever I do certain portraits and haircuts, I still impress myself. I get in the zone, put on my headphones, jam out, and when I finish I look at the haircut like, Wow that looks good.
How did you discover your rare talent?
I have eight siblings. We didn’t have a lot of money – my dad was the only person who worked in the house – so he would cut our hair to save money. When I was 16 years old I picked up the clippers and said, You know what? I’m going to try to do my own haircut. It was kind of a gift. I could draw real good and I guess I had an artistic eye.
Did you ever think that would lead to a full-time job?
I moved to San Antonio and still cut on the side, like a hobby. I would cut my own hair, my brothers, cousins, stuff like that. Then a couple of years later I got offered a job at a barbershop. I walked in to get a haircut and they asked me if I could help out. I was like, “Don’t I need a license or something?” He was like, “No, why don’t you just help me out for a couple of weeks.” I was like, “OK, I’ll try it out.” I picked up how to do other hairstyles pretty fast and then a kid came in and asked me to do a swirl line coming out of the forehead to the top of the head. I didn’t know how, but I just did it and it came out real good. From there more kids started coming in and word of mouth spread out quick. Next thing you know more and more people were coming in asking me for all kinds of things. I never said no.
Were you the only one in San Antonio doing these designs?
I started realising that a lot of barbers around me were picking up on the same designs. I would see people on the street and ask, “Where did you get that design? It looks like something I would do.” They were like, “Oh my friend’s doing it out of his house or this barber’s doing it.” I’m like, You know what, I’ve got to do something different that’s going to make me stand out. In 2008 I asked my brother if he’d let me do a portrait on him. I tried doing a Tupac Shakur and it’s actually on YouTube. The proof that I did this portrait is on tape. It came out awesome on the first try and from there I was like, OK! It’s on. I found my passion. A couple of years later I decided to add color to it to perfect it.
What’s your process for these elaborate, detailed portraits?
I figured out my own little techniques. Instead of drawing lines, you have to cut ‘em out. It’s like working backwards; I’m carving out the whites instead of drawing the blacks.
If you’re not afraid to give away your secrets, can you walk me through it?
First, I even out the area where I’m going to do my portrait. On the clipper, I use a one guard and I push it all the way up, so that makes it a 1.5. Then I grab the trimmer, which cuts really close to the skin, and I hold it like a pen. The trimmer has a T-blade at the top, so I use the corner of the T-blade to start detailing one section of the portrait. I keep the image up on my phone in black and white, so that I can see my whites and my blacks, and I focus on one eye or just the nose at a time. I pretty much carve all the white that I see on the image. As I’m carving out all the whites I pay attention to every shape, so it looks just like it. It’s very important that you make every shape exactly how you see it on the image.
How long in advance do you need to see the picture before you design the hair?
I usually Google it right on the spot, on my phone. What’s good about phones is that you can zoom into the picture.
Is that the special technique?
I pretty much act like every picture is a puzzle. I’m carving out the eyes, I’m carving out the lips – of course you need to have some artistic talent to do this. Then for grays, I take the one guard off and I use the half, which is the .5. That means I push the lever on the clipper all the way up. Then finally I go back, grab my straight blade, throw some lotion or a lather onto the portrait to soften up the cuticle, and start shaving all the white sections on there – the lightest sections in the image – so they have a glow on the nose or the forehead or even inside the eye. The last step includes eyeliner and pencils. I take eyeliner pencils and I use black to colour in all the dark shade and then I use a white to go on the teeth and eyes.
What about the colour? Is that dye?
How long do the hairstyles last?
The eyeliner washes off with water and soap, but I usually throw on a sealing coat – super-hold hairspray. That way you’re able to touch it and it won’t smear. You have to wash it off at the end of the day, though. Some people take a bath and wash their face, but don’t wash their hair to try to make it last. I’m like, OK [laughs]. It’s very important to me for the image to look good without the makeup so when the colour comes off it’s not just a painted portrait. I’m charging $150 to $200 (£90 to £115) for a haircut, so I want to make sure they could have it for as long as possible. It only lasts a week to a week-and-a-half total.
It’s kind of funny shaving hair into someone’s hair.
Have you seen the 3D ones like Bob Marley? I used the hair to do dreads. I also did a Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong and used actual hair for the beard. It was like 3D.
I see on your Instagram, you’ve been doing a lot for the World Cup recently.
Right now it’s soccer fever – bad. Everybody’s trying to get their soccer portrait. Mexico was a popular team, but they’re out so nobody’s getting those no more.
Are you a big football fan?
I grew up watching soccer. I thought I was going to be a soccer player, but unfortunately, real life hit and I had to work.
Who were you rooting for this year?
I was born and raised in the United States, but my parents are both from Mexico, so I always like Mexico.
Was that the most popular team for you?
It was Mexico and USA, but then it turned into Argentina. Everybody’s getting Messi – that guy right there is popular.
Have you ever messed up?
I can usually cover up my mess-ups without the client knowing. I misspelled the word Cadillac and only put one L in there. That was horrible. We noticed it afterwards, but I was able to fix it.
Fans comment on your Instagram in Hebrew. Do people visit you from around the world?
I’ve noticed that more people are coming from far away. I don’t know exactly about around the world yet, but maybe in the future. I will say I had this guy came in from Oklahoma and I thought that was real far from where I’m at.
Would you ever have a portrait on your head?
I would, but who’s going to do it?
You’d have to do it for yourself.
I’ve never tried that. I’ve never even had designs. I don’t know why – maybe because I’m picky. I wouldn’t mind getting one now. At first I was more like, Eh I’ll just do it on other people. Now the hair industry has changed so much that it doesn’t matter. I would get one.
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