Mr.M of Gentlemen's Avenue Chronicles True-School Barbering With DIY Style

Fred Koon doing his thing in 120 Years of Barbering, a documentary filmed by Mr. M.
Fred Koon doing his thing in 120 Years of Barbering, a documentary filmed by Mr. M.
Mr. M

If you live in towns with historic city centers such as Whittier, Orange or SanTana, you've noticed an influx of modern barber shops tinged with American midcentury nostalgia. Shiet, in Whittier, there's 20 of 'em. This craft barbering (which many experts predicted was on its way out in the '90s—boy, were they wrong) is part of a men's grooming industry that has transformed from a hipster and metrosexual dalliance into a $21 billion per year business.

On the periphery of this barber boom is Mr. M, founder and editor of Gentlemen's Avenue, an independent blog started in 2012 that chronicles the culture of men's traditional styles through DIY magazines such as The Avenue Men's Magazine, Traditional Barber's Journal and Traditional Tattoo Journal .Mr. M even creates men's lifestyle documentaries with help from his wife. "We're kind of like what GQ and Esquire could never be," he says with a chuckle.

Mr. M —a Chicano born in SanTana and raised in Placentia—prefers to stay anonymous and won't reveal much about himself. Instead, he'll chat for hours on end about the lives of legendary barbers and tattoo artists, including Chuco Moreno, Eric Webb, Jake Bricks, Donnie Hawley (of Hawleywood's fame), Omar Romero, Freddy Negrete, Jose "El Maestro" Aguirre and Ed Hardy—most of whom have trusted Mr. M to write about them for Gentleman's Avenue. Hardy was even featured on the cover of last winter's issue of The Avenue. "There's nobody that I write about that I'm not a fan of," Mr. M says. "I'm out there trying to find a pulse. I want to ask [barbers], 'What are your hardest times?' 'How's your family?' 'What's it like being a business owner?' I want to get down to the marrow of you."

A practitioner of his own well-grooming gospel, Mr. M sports a mustard guayabera, khaki-colored slacks, Allen Edmonds oxford shoes, a perfectly slicked-back and shiny black undercut, a thick handlebar mustache (which he periodically strokes during our conversation), and tattoos dotted around his knuckles and arms. This carefully curated wardrobe is a small taste of Mr. M's dapper yet alternative appearance on a sunny Saturday afternoon in his Uptown Whittier home. Beside him lay stacks of his self-published magazines, tattoo art posters against domestic violence, a humidor with a few Cubans inside, and his editing desk, where he chops up all of his men's culture docs that celebrate "manliness" through "style, grooming and life."

Mr. M's father instilled in him a passion for barbering through visits to American Razor in Fullerton. But as an adult, he frequented American Vintage Barber for service from the late great Carlos Gomez, with whom Mr. M developed a special bond. "Barbering is definitely relationship-based. If I don't go to my barber, and I go back three months later, it feels like I cheated on them," he says with a laugh. "I want to have a friendship with the person who is cutting my hair, not someone who thinks they're too cool for me, which oddly happens."

Now that barbering has become a lucrative business, Mr. M says weeding out those who are faking the funk for a quick buck from the true-school barbers is important for anyone who respects the culture like he does. "Some people are going into for the wrong reasons," he says. "They're not taking it as a profession; they're taking it as a hustle and a game. Many [new barber shops] aren't barber-owned; they're cosmetologist-owned.

"To have that barber pole," Mr. M continues, a slight frustration now settling into his voice, "you have to have a barber's license—and only a barber can use a straight razor."

In 2012, legislation in Michigan proposed banning cosmetologists from using the sacred barber's pole. Mr. M says a third-generation barber in Chicago (who once had the mob running operations out of his basement) once summarized the issue of poseurs saturating the barber scene to him best: "A nurse can't put outside her business that she's a doctor—you just can't do that. . . . If you're a cosmetologist, that's fine. But don't pass off as a barber just to saturate and absorb as much as you can from the industry."

According to Mr. M, today's revived interest in barbering is credited to three OC pioneers who deserve the highly coveted yet often loosely used title of "master barber." "Jake Bricks and Eric Webb are the foundation, but Donnie Hawley just took it to the stratosphere," he says.

Jake Bricks of Jake's Barbershop cultivated a following of suburban rebels, Chicanos and international rock stars such as Morrissey and Boz Boorer of the Polecats at his business in Orange. (Bricks died in 2000.) Eric Webb of Circle City Barbers (our winner for Best Barber Shop in 2012) is still humbly offering his craftsmanship from a quaint shop in Old Towne Orange. And Donnie Hawley of Hawleywood's barber shops in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Long Beach is one of the first master barbers to exhibit his talents on an international scale—Hawley even has a shop in Sydney, Australia. "What Jake, Eric and Donnie have done, it's all over the world," Mr. M says with the utmost respect and fandom.

While Mr. M celebrates malehood every chance he gets, he's not entirely exclusive in who can participate in barber culture—a tone that differs from certain shops that have banned women from entering their premises. "Some of my best hair cuts have come from women barbers. It's a different, relaxing vibe—it really is. There's no shame in that," he says. "Anybody can do it as long as you understand that you're part of a legacy, a heritage that's going to be here well after you're gone. Don't do anything to degrade it for the buck, for the dollar, for the like—to me, that's an insult to the profession."

As for all of the opportunist bandwagon barbers out there, Mr. M has a few words of warning: "[Barbering is] gonna burst— it's bursting right now because of saturation and trends." He feels only true-blooded barbers will stick around when long hair inevitably makes a comeback, as it did during the "Great Barber Depression" of the 1960s-1990s. "[The barber shop] is the heartbeat of the community, and that's what these people don't understand," he explains. "It's going to be there long after the trend is gone—if you really were a true barbershop."

He's currently working on a book called Revival of the Traditional Barbershop, which will document the most influential barber shops in Southern California for its first edition; an all-natural shaving cream; the latest issue of The Avenue; and a documentary on Romero, a renowned barber and rockabilly musician from Silver Lake. "Somehow, my life was destined for me to do what I've done," Mr. M says as he shares that his mother followed a Mexican Catholic tradition of praying to saints for certain blessings. She prayed to St. Martin de Porres to bless her with a son. "All my life, I always knew he was my patron saint. Turns out he's the patron saint of barbers, too."

To follow Mr. M's work, visit www.gentlemensavenue.com.


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