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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of Africa: The Hippest in Hair

White customers come to Toks' Afro Saloon hairdo parlor for one reason: to get a hip haircut.


Black customers come to Moscow's only barber shop specializing in African hair with a much more basic goal in mind: to avoid the unskilled scissors of the average Muscovite hair stylist who might be lucky to touch such tightly wound curls once in a lifetime.


The hair cuttery in southern Moscow is the brainchild of Tochukvu Victor Madubuko, who in 1993 noticed that "Everybody was walking around with non-professional, horrible-looking big hair. Friends were doing each others' hair."


After that, Madubuko, known to most as "Toks," started a barbershop in a small dormitory room at the University of People's Friendship but it was soon closed down by health officials who deemed it "unhygienic," he said. Then, in 1994, the Afro Saloon was born, explained Madubuko, 24, while sitting in the tiny cubicle rented by the Afro Saloon in the small Russian "Verita" barbershop across the street from the university.


"We do everything that has to do with black hair," said Madubuko, a tall, refined Nigerian with a ready smile. "We can do anything that is in vogue in America and Africa."


Given the unique properties of African hair and hairstyles, the Afro Saloon offers a valuable service for Moscow's black residents. Specially imported from the United States and Nigeria come creams, tonics, gels, waxes and hair straightening compounds. The three women and three men who do the cutting and braiding all studied in special barber schools in Africa, Madubuko said.


For men, the range of possible hairdos is impressive. There's the "Mike Tyson," named after the boxer, which is a short, shiny half-punk complete with an imitation scar above the forehead. Or the "Afro Blowout" reminiscent of the big black hair of the 1970s. Men's haircuts are a minimum of 20,000 rubles ($4) plus the cost of any hair additives used.


For women, prices can rocket to $200 to have a full head of hair turned into braids. Such work typically takes two hairstylists between five and eight hours of work to complete.


On a recent late Friday afternoon, an "exhausted but happy" 18-year-old Olga Kazakova was emerging from the barber's chair after six hours of beauty-making. "Of course my parents were against this, but I hope they will like it," she said, adding that she is contemplating drastic changes to her appearance in order to complement her new braids. "Because I will ... at least pierce my nostril."


Kazakova is one a handful of whites who visit the Afro Saloon, which Madubuko said has four white people in the average month as compared to 75 black men and four black women.


As the only one of its kind, the Afro Saloon is called upon to offer diverse services like hair extensions, woven into a customer's natural hair to produce buns, pony tails and curls. Rasta-style dreadlocks are another staple, but Madubuko warned that once done, such a hairdo can only be removed by a complete head shave.


The need for a place like the Afro Saloon becomes obvious when you consider the infrequency of the average Russian hairstylist's encounters with black hair. Lidiya, a hairdresser at the Elita hair parlor off Leningradsky Prospekt, complained that such hair is hard to manage because it is so thick, never hangs straight and there is no way of doing a standard white coiffure. "It's like a bush or a lawn," said Lidiya, who declined to give her last name.


Not every Russian hair stylist finds cutting black hair akin to landscaping. Tatyana Grinkevich, who works in the Verita barber shop. said she enjoys working on the fresh canvas that is African hair.


"When the client has thick bushy hair, you can shape it as a square or a triangle, or cut it at an angle," said Grinkevich. "You can make different fringes and shave in strips, words and symbols ... there is room for improvisation."