At this Anchorage barbershop, the vision is ‘unapologetically black’

Shawn Idom provides a hair cut at his barbershop Hair Science on Feb. 22. He says black barbershops can be a pillar within a community. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Checking in for an appointment at Hair Science Barbershop on the edge of Anchorage’s South Addition neighborhood, you’re greeted by a friendly staff member, and a solid bust of the Marvel superhero Black Panther.

There’s also a Black Panther mural just behind the front desk, and another one looming large over the wash bowls where hair gets shampooed and conditioned.

“Black Panther was everything for me,” said owner and operator Shawn Idom. “We just got a lot of that going on that ties into our culture, and most people think it’s super dope.”

A Black Panther mural looms large over the washbowls at Hair Science Barbershop and Barber School in Anchorage, Feb. 22, 2020. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Previously, Idom served in the U.S. Air Force. But when he left the military, he decided to open up his own barbershop in 2008.

Idom said his story is similar to that of a lot of black men who grew up going on weekly Saturday barbershop visits with their dads, letting friends practice shape-ups on their hairlines. The barbershop is a space that defines his identity.

“Barbershops are a pillar in the black community,” he said. “I learned how to be a man and about how men talk to each other. The arguments about sports, about who’s the best and the best rappers, politics, religion — we talked about it all in the barbershop.”

There are several black-owned barbershops in Anchorage. But the culture dripping from the walls of Hair Science is part of what makes it unique, said Katie Idom, Shawn’s wife.

“Shawn’s vision in this shop is being unapologetically black,” she said. “This is our shop, so we can have Black Panther everywhere and we’re not really worried about it rubbing people the wrong way, because it represents us.”

The Idoms pose for a portrait on Feb. 26, 2020. The Hair Science Barbershop and Barber School is a family operation. Katie Idom, left, is a hair stylist, but also handles their merchandise. From left to right: Katie Idom, Nova Idom, 1, Zendaya Idom, 3, and Shawn Idom. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

While the shop serves anyone who wants a haircut, representation of black culture helps people who walk in feel comfortable and confident, she said.

As a hairstylist herself, Katie said many stylists rarely get trained on diverse hair care to begin with.

“Most mannequin heads that a lot of these schools get is white hair,” she said. “(But) Alaska is so diverse. It’s not just white hair in the world, it’s black hair too, and Polynesian hair, Hispanic hair, so many different types of hair.”

That’s part of why Idom said he added an educational component to Hair Science, opening a barber school within the shop in 2014 to help train the next generation of barbers.

“I saw that it could be better education for barbers in Alaska,” he said.

People shouldn’t have to travel or pay a lot, he said.

Student barbers at Hair Science practice on mannequins as well as on live clients. Feb. 26, 2020. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Currently at the shop, Idom has about 10 students working toward the minimum of 1,650 hours of haircuts, beard shaves, trims, perms and colors needed in order to get a barber license. And he boasts a 100% state board pass rate for students who graduate from his year-long program.

Tiana Benjamin, 28, is a current student barber. She has been learning and working at Hair Science for just over a year. She said she became interested in cutting hair after her dad and brother let her practice on them when she was younger.

“I always find it fascinating, those transitions, for somebody to come in and their hair is not cut, and then you cut the hair and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s like a transformation,” she said.

Tiana Benjamin, 28, poses for a portrait in front of her station at Hair Science on Feb. 26, 2020. As an active duty member in the military, she says barbering is a skill she can take with her anywhere. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

An active-duty service member in the U.S. Army, she likes that barbering is a skill that she’ll be able to take with her wherever she goes.

But beyond learning how to properly cut hair, Benjamin said, working with Idom has taught her that haircuts and community-building go hand-in-hand.

“It’s not just about the haircut, it’s really about the experience that you get while you’re here,” she said.

And for Idom, creating that unique experience is linked to who he is as a person.

Hair Science Barbershop and Barber School in Anchorage is decorated with Marvel superhero Black Panther memorabilia and other pieces of artwork that represent black culture Feb. 22, 2020. (Photo by Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“I am a black man, I’m very proud of that,” Idom said. “I definitely wanted to make an environment that was conducive to any and all being able to come in here and get their service, but also feel comfortable while they’re doing that.”

In the shop, there’s another piece of interesting decoration — a championship belt crowning Idom the “people’s champ.” It was given to him by other local barbers.

He said it’s a constant reminder of what a simple haircut and welcoming space can do for a community.

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