Barber melds art and hair
Steel & Velvet Barber in Bellport opens at 10 a.m., but a hopeful customer banged on the front door at 9:40 a.m. hoping to squeeze in a haircut with Jessi Flores. He said this happens quite often.
Flores, 39, is the owner and sole barber at Steel & Velvet, a vintage barber shop with old-fashioned barber’s poles, chairs, memorabilia, towel steamers and more from the classic days of the profession. But unique to Flores’s shop is its creative atmosphere, which looks like it was built by someone with an artistic eye — which it was.
Aside from cutting hair, Flores has a passion for art. He got his start while living in Jericho, where he grew up and attended Hicksville schools. In middle school he met a new kid from Queens, where he said a lot of students came from, and felt an immediate friendly connection. The student at the time was into similar things like fashion, art and music, and took an interest in the sketching Flores did in his spare time.
His new friend had been dissatisfied with local barbers and had been going back to Bayside, Queens to get a decent haircut. Upon seeing Flores’s creativity, he asked him to cut his hair, and gave him a pair of clippers to do the job. Flores was only 13, but he was hooked, and after that one cut, everyone started asking him to do their hair.
Since then, Flores has worked in many barbershops, but always wanted a little more. He said that creative control of the space is important, and made sure that he put an authentic feel into his own business, which opened over eight years ago. His shop on South Country Road next to Village Bistro boasts his passions about the profession: craftsmanship, a vintage look, and the history of barbering.
“I was on a mission,” he said of creating his space. “It’s taken a while and I’m still not there. This is like a tribute to the barbers of the past.”
He said that after 25 years, it’s hard for him not to give a good haircut, and that it’s something that has always come naturally. He didn’t attend school for barbering or art. He got his first art exposure in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when he would see graffiti art on the car ride out to Queens to meet family friends. From that exposure, he realized how fascinated he was with color and everything that was possible. He added that city street art was a big inspiration for him.
Flores was the first artist in his family, but couldn’t deny that it was a part of him. He said that once you turn it on, you can’t turn it off. He doesn’t use graffiti much in his own work, but doesn’t stray far from the stylistic influence that he grew up with. His art is interactive, and in a few pieces he had on display, colors were the thing that popped out most. There’s also a terrain to his art, whether it be paint, sand or another medium. He encourages people to touch his art to get the full experience.
Flores said that between his family, his barbershop and his art, he is spread thin, but always makes time to give his efforts his full attention. He is married for almost 10 years and the father of two boys, ages 5 and 3. He said that when it’s dad time, it’s dad time. The same goes for his shop and his art. The 3-year-old loves his dad’s art, and is often audibly and visibly wowed by the paintings he gets to interact with. That’s when Flores knows a piece is a keeper.
Flores doesn’t usually commission his art or even sell it. He likes the ability to decide what he can do with it on his own. He’s not a fan of social media, other than finally breaking down and signing onto Instagram a few months ago. He believes that true relationships and loyalty are built face to face.
Flores’s activity doesn’t stop there. One initiative that has gotten the notice of community members is his work with Little Flower in Wading River. Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York is a not-for-profit charity serving children, families and individuals with developmental disabilities across New York City and Long Island. Flores began work with Little Flower providing haircuts for the people there two years ago.
“As long as I live in New York, I’m going to have a connection to this place,” he said.
While working with the staff there, he discovered there was a need for an art workshop, and asked to run it. The staff agreed, but Flores had to provide the art supplies and paint that the students use.
Now every Saturday, he sets up a pop-up shop in Huntington and the money raised goes toward the art supplies used in the class at Little Flower. Flores said he believes in earning everything. He added that in doing this, he hopes to teach his students not only art, but life skills. The workshop includes art in his own style, but he also has brought in illustrators and other medium experts, who have given different perspectives.
“It’s not about me, it’s about creative people,” he said.
Flores’s busy life is only going to get busier in the upcoming months, he said. In October, he will be curating an art exhibit at Artspace in Patchogue, which he said will include a lot of surprises and great art, featuring other up-and-coming artists influenced by street art. He added that his future works will include art and barbering to create something unique.
“Art and barbering will be meshed together,” he said. “I can’t abandon one.”
Flores has also had trouble finding the right person to join him at his shop. He’s had good help, but wants a fellow barber who is loyal and as devoted to the cause as he is.
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