His paintings hanging on a wall behind him, Faustino de Vargas tells the woman in his barber chair that he became a better hairdresser after studying the visual arts.
De Vargas practices the nearly forgotten technique of the European razor cut, which he says became unpopular in the 1980s, when "men and women came out with AIDS."
The method, he says, enables him to reveal the inherent beauty in a head of hair, wielding the razor as gently as he does the paintbrush.
The woman in the barber chair, Suzannah, met De Vargas in the restaurant where she works. Sure, she came in for a haircut, but only because her conversation with De Vargas left her wanting to hear more. "He's just very interesting," she says.
Two weeks earlier, I'd met De Vargas when he walked into the SFR office, bearing that could-be-homeless, could-be-an-artist look of impenetrability. He wore a gaucho's long, black overcoat and a forest-green ranch hat. His mustachioed face seemed serious, lines carved in stone, but his eyes danced with effusive youth.
I happened to be at the front desk picking up a printout, and I very nearly told the 76-year-old New Mexican that someone (else) would be along shortly, when his Jackson Pollock demeanor compelled me to ask him if I could help.
He said he'd come to get a story in the paper. Every paper in town had written about him, he said, minus SFR, which caused me to smirk because the statement had the opposite effect of its intended persuasion.
I started to politely dismiss him, stressing that I was, in fact, on deadline, when I admonished myself for being curt and arrogant, and invited him into the conference room.
There, along with his portfolio, he laid out a manila folder full of write-ups, which for all their detail and personality, told the same story: Hairdresser reinvents himself as a self-taught painter. Originally from Rio Arriba County, he's a 40-year resident of Santa Fe; a widower at 28 with four kids, De Vargas hit the road at 58 to paint 800 churches in villages throughout New Mexico, foregoing any lasting romantic relationships; his hairdressing name is Tino; his artist name is Faustino; he considers himself the Vincent van Gogh of New Mexican churches, but still believes hair is his greatest artistic medium.
Without much to add to this narrative, De Vargas set out soliciting press, he said, because he recently relocated to the Plaza Mercado. "What I need for people to know is that I have a gallery downtown, and that I'm the best haircutter there is," he said.
Charmed by his guileless confidence, I agreed to visit him.
In his third-story studio a couple of weeks later—Suzannah waiting patiently, Maxim and Playboy magazines casually adorning the space—De Vargas tells me that his family came up from Mexico with Mormon missionaries. He's Mormon, but of Spanish descent, so the Catholic churches of New Mexico still represent for him the heart of community. "It's our way of life," he says.
After showing me how he transfers his paintings onto tiles, aluminum, refrigerator magnets and T-shirts—there in the studio—De Vargas offers to cut Suzannah's hair as a demonstration of his skill.
This being the first time he cuts her hair, De Vargas tells her not to worry. "Cutting hair is a lot like being a parent," he says. "You say, 'You came here to me. I'm going to do something you don't know about, and you will be happy.' You take them beyond the point of fear."
One must give children the confidence to be who they are, he adds: "People kill the little kid inside. We have to keep that in us."
Tino’s Hair Studio and Faustino’s Art Gallery
112 W San Francisco St.
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