Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When Things Get Hairy

Hair is very much a part of people's cultural identity. From "bears", those lovable portly hairy gay men, to not so lovable hipsters with waxed moustaches - hair makes a statement. It is no surprise that the book Hair'Em Scare'Em showcases hair as an inspiration for graphic design, photography and fashion.

Hair'Em Scare'Em mixes outlandish images like the one above, that reminded me of Uncle Fester from the Addams Family. (Correction - It is Cousin IT, from the Addams Family!). I was also fascinated by the image of the young man below mostly because he was not styled to look that way - it seems to me like the boy was naturally hairy. The book mentioned no information whatsoever about the model so I had to do some research.

Untitled, by Carlos Aires. From the series "happily ever after"

The photograph is by Carlos Aires, from Spain, part of his series titled "happily ever after". Aires' photographs are populated by midgets in bull fighter suits, sleepy chubby nuns and old vaudevillians. The young man is mentioned to be "South American" in the photographer's website, but again, not much information is given. Aires' images are fascinating and superbly executed but they made me think about the fine line between morbidity and exploitation. At times I got the same mixed feelings while paging trough Hair'Em Scare'Em. Hair has a way of bringing guttural emotions that mix repulsion, beauty and even sexual desire. In that way, the book succeeds superbly.

Julia Pastrana

Hair has also been an inspiration to me. I created the painting pictured below several years ago. It was shown at City Art gallery in San Francisco for the show "Monsters" in 2004. The premise was that we create monsters out of what we don't understand. The painting was inspired by a Mexican woman, winner of the infamous title "ugliest woman in the world". Julia Pastrana (pictured above) was an actress, singer and dancer born in 1834. She had a condition called hipertrichosis, also called "werewolf" syndrome. Her entire body was covered with thick hair. I was moved by Julia's story when I first read a book about her life. She died shortly after giving birth to a little boy that was just as hairy as she was. In my painting I took creative license and decided to give Julia a family. The painting depicts what her children may had looked like.

But back to the original image by Aires. Doing some research I discovered that we still have performers that are affected by hirsutism. In the Mexican village of Loreto, in Baja California a group of circus performers were dubbed as "Los Ninos Lobo" (The wolf children). Here is the story in Spanish, via El Mundo, a publication in Spain. The article by Virgine Luc talks about a hairy boy named Danny.

Danny, photo by Gérard Rancinan

Danny and his three siblings were raised by their grandmother after their mother left for Texas. Danny's brother Larry was just as hairy as he was. Due to a lucky coincidence a small circus showed up in Danny's village on an unscheduled visit. Grandma made Danny and his brother audition for the circus. The circus owner ended up adopting the boys legally, they were five and eight years old. Danny never went to school, but the said that the son of the circus owner taught him to be an acrobat. However, the most important lesson his adopted brother taught him was "Nada ni nadie puede impedirte ser lo que tú quieras ser - nothing, or anything can stop you from being who you want to be". I never figured out if the boy in the book was related to the "wolf boys" from Loreto. I don't think it is possible that the boy photographed by Aires was Larry. Larry is older than Danny. He moved to Canada where he got married and has a daughter.

I wish Hair'Em Scare'Em had shown a few designers from Africa or Latin America. We have such an interesting history with hair. The contributors of the book are mostly from Europe and the United States, with a few Japanese contributors. Only a few images alluding to Latino or African American hair are depicted. One of them is meant as a funny image of a black horse wearing corn rows, by Australian designer Julian Wolkenstain.

Even if Europeans are discovering the joys of being hairy and scary, immature comments alluding to animalism and race still abound. Not too long ago singer Tiziano Ferro commented that it was impossible to find beautiful women in Mexico because "they all had moustaches" during an interview on national Italian television. Ferro was at the time popular in Mexico. In 2001 the Spanish version of his song Rosso Relativo entered the Mexican TOP 20 album sales chart. Ugly or not, Mexican women loved his music. After claims of tears and deep depression due to the backlash of his statements, Ferro's record company issued a video apology. Ferro came across as someone that would bite the hairy hand that fed him.

Oh, hair! The most famous Mexicana con bigote is of course, painter Frida Kahlo. By deciding to keep her moustache and unibrow she challenged gender and social norms, while becoming one of the most recognized artists in the world.

Go check out this book! Hair'Em Scare'Em is published by the creative agency Gestalten. The ghost of European beauty standards don't stop the book from being enjoyable and having whimsical, funny, and inspiring imagery.

For more information about Julia Pastrana visit The Human Marvels. Thaks to J. Thithonus Pednaud for creating Human Marvels, a site dedicated to vindicating those people who were once labeled as freaks.

Pay a visit to City Art Gallery if you are in San Francisco.


  1. I recently discovered your blog. I really like texts and images.
    The art works on the second photo of this article is by Dutch artist Levi van Veluw
    Marisa Polin

  2. Thank you for visiting Marisa, and for the clarification.