June 4th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gross desserts on the sex-education menu

CANBERRA OBSERVED Suggested parallel less a Murphy than a furphy

EDITORIAL Obama rewards Vietnam: a particularly nasty regime

ENVIRONMENT Land sinkage, not rising sea levels, the real threat

LIFE ISSUES Who am I? Baby's first memoir

SOCIETY Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

LIFE POLICY Queensland abortion bill is out of step with voters

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay 'marriage' and the given in human procreative behaviour (part 1)

RURAL LIFE Some of the reasons why farmers need a new bank

It's a queer theory that says kids can transgender (Part Two of two)

MUSIC Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

CINEMA Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Tragic betrayal

BOOK REVIEW Great reformer or great dictator?

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Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, June 4, 2016

Haircuts were once cheap and uniform. Short back and sides ruled; many barbers offered no other style.

The pervasive odour of cheap pomade and stale cigarette smoke did nothing to improve the homely ambiance of the classic barber’s shop. Barber’s shops were not great money-spinners. Proprietors offered a uniform service with little scope for innovation. Battling one-man operations struggled to turn a profit. They often displayed signed photographs from third-rate celebrities, commending the proprietor on his skills. Social interaction was limited to, “Jeez, those Doggies are looking good. Reckon they’ll make the finals?”

As time progressed, some men with wavy hair and others who wanted something a little different from the norm began patronising unisex salons. Hairdressers, mostly women but some male, knew how to cut these types of hair. Gradually, barber’s shops became an endangered species. The days of undercover cigarette sales, along with the short back and sides, were coming to a close.

But something is happening. Keep an eye on what is going on around your city. You may have noticed barber’s shops springing up. By some miracle, barber’s shops are going through a revival. The Millennials, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, are rebelling.

The rejuvenation of the barbering industry has created a class of man who is more tonsorial artist than mere haircutter. Men want hairstyles, not a haircut; these tonsorial artists provide them. Hairstyles come in many forms; men have recovered an interest in their hair – more hairdo than haircut. Men grow mustaches and other facial hair, some so eccentric as to be unique. Want to imitate legendary Viking King Ragnar Lodbrok, with a luxuriant beard and a naked skull covered in runes? That ‘s OK. The new styles require expert trimming. Shaves with cutthroat razors are in fashion. Men pay well for these services. Minimum charge is often $25, less for whippersnappers.

The new barber’s shop is luxurious; no worn-out 50-year-old barber’s chairs. More lounge than shop. On Saturday mornings, the place is busy, all five chairs continually occupied; men and boys waiting their turn in comfortable chairs. Few women are seen there, it is a place for men. Fathers take their sons for a haircut, just as their fathers did 40 years ago. Fathers introduce their young sons to the company of men by taking them to the barber’s. Men are saying: “We are men, this is our place, an oasis of masculinity in an increasingly unisex society.” The Millennials are saying: “This unisex thing has gone far enough!”

Like most things, hair fashions are cyclical. The demand for stylish haircuts resembles the 1950s. As for facial hair, there is no end to its popularity. The mustache and beard have been around literally forever, but the artistic arrangement of facial hair is gaining a popularity not seen since the Victorian era. Younger men wear stylish mustaches.

Complex facial hair designs are no longer the province of spivy salesmen. Fund-raising exercises like Movember, when men grow mustaches and then shave them off, have stimulated interest in facial hair. Men are reclaiming a part of their masculinity that had been alienated in a profession that was becoming feminised.

The return of the hair stylist is best seen as a rebellion against conformity. Men want to look different. Although it is not necessarily a sign of a casting off of social norms, men are asserting that masculinity is valuable; that the era of the blow-waved toy boy is over. They don’t want to follow the rules.

This rejection of conformity is not always rejection of civility, but other social movements are. Take, for example, the men with oversized holes in their earlobes and rings through their septums and lips. They are identical to the pre-Columbian Mayan Indians in Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s epic set in the time just before the Spanish conquistadores arrived.

The impulse to embrace a primitive pre-literate society encourages retrog­ression to a time before civility had become the norm. For urban youth, multiple piercings and funky hairstyles are obviously not merely decoration. Very few employers or landlords would want anything to do with an employee or tenant like this. They have consciously excluded themselves from paid employment and private residential tenancies.

Society only exists because of an implied social contract. We do not actually sign a social contract, but we accept that it exists and that we will abide by it. The “contract” implies that we abstain from certain modes of behaviour. Tied up with this is the notion of civility – that we should behave with politeness and courtesy, and remain cordial when interacting with the instruments of the state.

There are two classic formulations of the social contract. Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that to maintain social stability, citizens must surrender certain rights to the state. John Locke, in Two Treatises on Government, held that it was justifiable to overthrow a tyrannical ruler. Locke was an influential intellectual precursor to America’s Founding Fathers. Leviathan is said to be the only truly great work of philosophy written in the English language.

When immigrants formally become citizens of Australia by naturalisation, they explicitly affirm that they accept the Australian social contract. They are issued with a certificate of citizenship. By pledging that they will adhere to the Australian social contract, immigrants become citizens with the rights and responsibilities of all citizens.

Now, we cannot write down what are the total of rights and responsibilities of citizens. Only some of it is black-letter law – such as legislation by the various level of government in Australia. This we can determine with some certainty. But what is law in Queensland may not be law in Victoria.

We can also say that a great deal of the Australian social contract is not black-letter law, or law in the legal sense at all. The formal elements of the social contract can be determined easily, but what about the informal elements? Citizenship involves rights; it also involves duties.

The current situation is that certain individuals and groups do not wish to be considered as adhering to the social contract. They act outside the law. They do not wish to be considered as part of our civilisation; they reject the notion of civility and implied duties. One can identify those who wish to withdraw from the Australian social contract. Of course, they derive benefits from citizenship and the rule of law. It is more a form of social internal exile. One could cite ethnic gang members, biker gangs, drug abusers and their suppliers (often closely related), potential terrorists and criminal fraternities.

Tattooing goes back to prehistory. The Maoris turned tattooing to a high art centuries before tattooing became widespread in Western Europe. Male thigh tattoos, for example, record family history. They are still used today. Tattoos have always performed a semiotic function. Semiotics is the science of signs. The tattoos a person wears say something about that person. For many years, tattoos were the domain of marginalised groups, such as merchant seamen and criminal elements. The recent leaking of tattoos into the general population has meant that tattoos have become widely tolerated. For example, Victoria Police recruits are no longer automatically rejected for having tattoos.

Tattoos come in a variety of forms. “Mum”, ironic or not, is a longtime favourite. Dragons are well liked, though the degree of menace varies. Rougher types favour minatory tattoos with which they hope to intimidate their victims. Some young women prefer the sleeve, a tattoo from wrist to shoulder. Some tattoos have legends in foreign languages, not all of which are transcribed correctly.

In one famous case in a Thai tattoo parlour, a man came around with a tattoo reading “Put the tattoo here” tattooed on his arm. Another man, illiterate in Chinese, had “girl power” in characters on his arm.

Men and women have differing tattoo styles. Full-body tattoos are largely a male province. Male tattoos often have aggressive implications. Women prefer dolphins and often have their parents’ names and birthdays applied to their skin, or their children’s names. Having a boyfriend’s name applied is foolish. Getting rid of a boyfriend is easier than having a tattoo removed. Tattoos are an act of rebellion. Fathers in particular don’t like seeing their daughters with tattoos.

Tattoos can only be removed with considerable difficulty, and those with tattoos in intimate places can be severely embarrassed if they switch partners.

The tattooist is a skilled artisan. He must have a high level of artistic talent, plus the hand and eye skills to perform the actual function of tattooing. Before becoming a practitioner, the tattooist must first find a “human canvas” to practise on. Tattoos, as we have noted, are not easily removed, so the canvas must have a lot of confidence in the trainee tattooist.

We can say that the rise of eccentric hairdos and tattooing are related in a social trend by which some people signal their withdrawal from the social contract. Some, such as those with face tattoos and multiple piercings, are obvious cases. They are rarely employed, for obvious reasons, and often live in squats while drawing on handouts from the government and non-government charitable institu­tions. This form of internal exile is usually signaled by minatory tattoos, odd haircuts and rejection of the formal economy.

Putting all young people with tattoos in one basket cannot be justified. For most, a tattoo is a form of decoration, mixed with a little rebellion. Some tattoos are quite beautiful. Most people who get tattoos are Millennials. The years may not be kind to them, or their tattoos. A funky hairstyle is easier to replace than a tattoo, by several orders of magnitude.

The impetus to have tattoos applied and wear funky hairstyles is accelerating. We live in an era of relative prosperity, but it is harder for Millennials to make their way in the world. Getting a part-time job is easy; buying a home is not. Millennials are the prime clientele for barbers and tattooists; we should not be surprised at a degree of rebellion.

Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.

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