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Boston Born: One Barber In A Tribe

“Ever since I was a kid, I could see from across the street what somebody was doing wrong with their hair,” says Van Capizzano, head barber at the year-old Tribe Barber.

As close to a celebrity barber as they come, Capizzano’s cut the hair of Robert DeNiro onscreen, been interviewed for the New York Times style section, and written hairdressing columns for magazines. Like many artisans and craftspeople who work with their hands for a living, Capizzano grew up in the punk scene — lower Manhattan’s, specifically — with a DIY attitude.

“I was an artist, a musician, a painter,” the Tribe Barber founder says. “But growing up in the skateboard scene, everything is about your style. Even if you can pull a trick, if it doesn’t look cool then it’s not a cool trick.”

“I draw a lot, I quilt shirts, my wife and I make wallets,” Capizzano says, continuing his list of creative credentials. “I always approach things from more of an artistic perspective, and I can kind of see the thing in somebody’s hair that would make it better.”

As a kid he was far more likely to be found cutting his and his friends’ hair into whacky styles than sitting still in his uncle’s barbershop chair, but his decision to go to hairdressing school was more financially motivated than the awakening of some dormant barbering genes.

“My music wasn’t going anywhere,” he says, “I’d heard hair colorists make a lot of money, and I’d been colouring my own hair since I was 12. I’ve been every color, every shade, I’ve done it so many times that I’m already pretty good at it.”

“Even when I went to hairdressing school I said that I wished there was a high end men’s barber shop,” Capizzano says. “Luckily it took off.”

Similarly, his transition to cutting men’s hair was also about the economics. He realised fairly quickly after working in the salon business that not only was he “more of a guy’s guy,” as he puts it, but that “Every guy needs a haircut on average, every five weeks. The numbers are there.”

Capizzano combined his friends and family’s knowledge of barbering with his hairdressing skills, and quickly established himself as a creative barbering force working in a small, high-end shop in the back of the then-fledgeling Freeman’s Sporting Club, in NYC. He’s also one of the main people to thank for the now-ubiquitous undercut — or as he called it, a “pilot cut” — that it seemed half of the male population was rocking at one point.

“I started doing them on myself and my friends and anybody that would let me,” he says. It was like the Tony Hawk haircut from the ’80’s that he was obsessed with, but with a clipper fade up blending seamlessly into a classic cut on top, like ones that early 20th Century German fighter pilots wore, and with plenty of length to mess up when the moment was right. “Because of where we were and the shop we were in, we had every major magazine coming to us,” he says.

Part hyper philosophy professor, part aging-skater Edward Scissorhands, Capizzano rapidly veers between waxing poetic about classic rock music, lecturing on the body’s good bacteria, and ranting about what really constitutes good pizza. When he’s finished you’ll have the sharpest haircut of your life.
Barbers tend to be very ego driven, he says, and his deputy at Tribe Barber, Rio Cortés, is no exception to the rule of bravado. “You’ve gotta have balls to take an inch off someone’s head,” Capizzano says.

He and his wife headed to Boston about a decade later for family reasons, and he brought his scissors, his style, and his New York attitude to a different set of chairs hidden at the back of a store — this time at Newbury Street’s Ball and Buck.

Having wanted to open his own store in New York for years, Capizzano decided to do it in Boston. He’d finally have complete creative freedom, and the process would conveniently occupy his mind while living a slower pace of life than he was used to.

The best part of owning his own shop is being his own boss, Capizzano says. He doesn’t have to follow anybody else’s arbitrary schedule, and he’s free to push his artistry and his craft. “In a creative field, structure is your enemy.”

“I wanted to find a name that had a community kind of feel to it,” he says of Tribe Barber’s moniker, but wanted to avoid the likes of ‘club’ or ‘social group’ for his new space, which were beginning to be used the the point of redundancy. “Everyone in this town belongs to the same tribe. We all bring what we want to it,” he says. “I’m just the tribe barber.”

Letting somebody go near your head with scissors is a terrifying enough prospect, but when it comes to hair, Capizzano says the best thing you can do is let go of all control.

“It’s like being a bartender for sober people,” he says of being a barber. “The best part of my job is talking to people. My hands are just going to do what they’re going to do at this point.”

“The beauty lies in the chaos,” he says, as only an artist can. “What does your hair want to do, and how do we make that shine? The one weird thing your hair does is the one unique thing it does. That little flair to your hair has more personality to it that the control.”

You might leave Tribe Barber’s chair with the sharpest haircut you’ve ever had, but you also might leave with a whole new outlook on life.

“Twenty-five percent of it is the haircut. Twenty-five percent of it is the consistency in availability, and the other 50 percent of it is your personality,” Capizzano says of being a good barber. “It’s part showmanship.”
Capizzano aspires to one day sell t-shirts and apparel he’s designed out of Tribe Barber too. Right now metal bracelets, money clips, and a knife made by some of his artist friends are for sale on the front desk.
“This is the one accessory you can’t take off,” he says, tugging emphatically at his hair. “You’re going to pay $20 for it?” As everything else in the cultural zeitgeist becomes elevated — food, menswear, music — why shouldn’t barbershops?

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Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.