As 6-year-old Malijah Tucker fell asleep to the monotonous buzz of electric clippers, barber Mike Iles would occasionally nudge the kindergartner awake and remind him to keep his head still.
Hair art is challenging enough, when the canvas isn’t drooping from one shoulder to the other.
“He does this every time,” Iles said with a smile but fixed concentration. Shaving designs into hair takes a steady hand and short, precise strokes. Make a mistake, and there is no eraser.
Iles, 25, began cutting hair after graduating high school eight years ago in Virginia Beach, Va. Back then, he experimented with shaving simple lines and patterns — often on his younger brother — to master what became more elaborate concepts and detailed characters.
Since setting up shop at Rose’s Hair Studio & Boutique in Hermiston, Iles figures he shaves maybe one design per week. Word of mouth is yet to spread, he said, but he hopes that will change soon.
Designs can take anywhere from one to several hours, depending on what exactly the customer wants. Iles has shaved a scene of Batman roaming Gotham City, numerous city skylines and what he described as a full-head maze with star etched out in the center.
For Tucker, whose father is a friend of the family, Iles would shave a spider and web wrapping all the way around the back of his head.
“You want to be different, right?” he teased. “You want to be the cool kid on the block.”
Iles had only a day to mull the design, and even that is generous advance notice. Most walk-ins just tell him what they want right then and there. Sometimes they bring in a picture printed off of the Internet, but if not it is up to Iles to flex some individual creativity.
“If they walk in, I have to think fast,” he said.
Every barber has their own process, but Iles usually starts where most haircuts end: with the “lineup,” closely trimming the neck, face and ears to see what kind of space he has for the actual artwork.
With that out of the way, Iles uses just the smallest tip of the electric razor like a pencil, drawing out the design and later blending in the lines to make them stand out against the scalp.
And, if Iles does have a slip, he can usually ad-lib a slight, natural adjustment to the design.
“There have been times I’ve messed up, but after I finish they don’t even know where the mistake was because I’ve twisted it up and added something new,” Iles said.
It is generally the younger crowd, kids and teenagers who ask for a hair design, Iles said. Tucker, in particular, has had stars and lines done before. This time, the spider was his dad’s idea.
As a child himself, Iles always enjoyed visiting his father’s barbershop, having the chance to meet new people and share stories with the older guys.
“It was just a good atmosphere,” Iles said. “It was just a place to talk.”
Iles played football through high school, and considered playing college ball before ultimately deciding that wasn’t for him. He again found himself in the barbershop, cutting hair as an apprentice.
Wanting to get away from the East Coast and start a new life, Iles came to Oregon three years ago where he met up with family. He left briefly last year to finish school at Victoria’s Academy of Cosmetology in the Tri-Cities, and returned to Hermiston in November.
After shaving a design, Iles takes a picture on his iPhone to post on his own Uptown Cuts Barbershop website. He dreams of eventually starting his own business.
“I’ve always felt like, when I have enough money to open my business, that’s what I’d call it,” Iles said. “That’s pretty much everybody’s goal in this line of work.”
Once finished with Tucker, Iles reached for his camera phone and let the child down out of the barber chair. Tucker, now wide awake, rushed to the nearest mirror where he could run his fingers over the spiderweb.
“Cool,” he grinned.
That’s all Iles needed to hear.
“Even this here was a learning experience for me, because this was my first spider,” he said. “But it’s all about the customer. If he’s cool with it, then I’m cool with it.”
Rose’s Hair Studio & Boutique is located at 256 E. Main St., or call 541-289-0685. To view more of Iles’ haircuts, visit www.uptowncuts-barbershop.com.
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.