New York City-based Filipino hairstylist Mark Bustos appears on a billboard along EDSA Magallanes (a prime spot, at that) as the new face of Bench Fix Clay Doh and the newly opened Bench Barbers, but the message on it isn’t that of vanity. He has made international headlines over the past two years, not only for giving his A-list clientele their signature haircuts in Three Square Studio in Chelsea. Big names like fashion designer Philip Lim (a good friend of his responsible for connecting Bustos to Suyen Corporation chairman and CEO Ben Chan in 2014), fashion designer Marc Jacobs and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, just to name a few, are regulars. Lim visits him every five days for a trim.
It is because Bustos demonstrates the transformative power a great head of hair can give even to the needy and the homeless. Documented on his Instagram @markbustos under the hashtag #BeAwesomeToSomebody, he gives them haircuts for free.
“Hair is like a fabric we hold onto and carry throughout the day. Our life is soaked into our hair,” he says. “It can be a security blanket and a crown — it can be chopped off to symbolically break free or shaped for greatness. It is never just hair, but at the same time, it is just hair. It feels good to cut it all off and start fresh. Start anew.”
Since 2012, he’s spent most Sundays — his only day off from work — giving free haircuts to homeless men and women on the streets of NYC and in the Philippines, mostly in his hometown of San Nicolas, Pampanga, where the project took off in a rented neighborhood barbershop chair. He has also given free haircuts in Costa Rica and Jamaica.
At that time, Bustos was already charging top dollar for a haircut in New York City, being put on private planes to cut a client’s hair.
“I have been doing hair since I was 14 years old, out of my mother and father’s garage in New Jersey. It’s all I’ve ever done my entire life, the only job I’ve ever had. I’ve been on the road to find success all my life doing hair for 18 years. I progressively worked my way up. When I got to that point in my life, (I thought) what’s next? I still didn’t feel successful. It wasn’t until I stopped looking for success that I found it,” says Bustos.
Bench Barbers’ launch and Bustos’ debut as Clay Doh ambassador coincides with the retail giant’s 30th anniversary. Early this month, Bustos and the Bench Fix team paid it forward at DSWD Haven for the Elderly, a home for neglected elderly, Tahanang Walang Hagdan, a home for the disabled, and Boystown, a correctional facility for abandoned and delinquent boys. Just like the first time, Bustos starts each appointment with the same line: “I want to do something nice for you today.”
Back in New York, he cuts up to six people every Sunday in open spaces like sidewalks and in the middle of parks, documents it on Instagram, and now on Bench’s #LoveLocal digital campaign of his visit to Boystown so that more people can see “not me,” he points out, but the people he grooms. “It’s a movement to be able to inspire not just hairstylists or barbers but anybody to be able to find their passion and use it to do a good deed.”
On the video, you can see the boys recognizing the “second chance” they have, just by glimpsing at what they could become, in Bustos’ barber’s mirror.
Bustos is proof that we can all contribute in our own way. His free haircuts empower both the needy and homeless — and draw a human connection with those who think nothing of getting their hair done for $160 and up. Whatever walk of life we come from, we all deal with identity and self-worth.
Such was the case with Jamar Banks, his first “client” in New York City, who hadn’t had a haircut in three months. “He has curly textured hair so three months’ growth is a lot. He only spoke when he was spoken to,” Bustos recalls. “At the end of the haircut, I gave him a mirror to show him what he looked like and the first thing he said was, ‘Do you know anyone who’s hiring? I want to get a job.’ I had to make him repeat it. I couldn’t believe what he said.”
THE PHILIPPINE STAR: #BeAwesomeToSomebody turns five in May. Has anything changed?
MARK BUSTOS: I’ve been doing things exactly like since day one. I don’t go out with a team. If I said yes to everybody who wanted to cut hair with me, the intentions would be thrown off a little bit, I think. They come up to me saying, “Mark, let me help you.” But I don’t need help. There’s more people out there who need help. Go help them. If you want something done, go out and do it. People say, “Mark, you have copycats all around the world.” But they’re not copycats. We need to do this together.
You’ve given free haircuts to the needy in New York, California, Jamaica, Costa Rica — what’s it like doing it here in the Philippines?
Whenever I cut hair in the Philippines, like in the cemetery (where squatters live), a five-minute walk from my family home in San Nicolas, or when I was with the Bench Fix team, through photos you’d think it’s a dark, bleak moment. But when you’re there, in the cemetery, it seems eerie and sad, but people are happy to see you. They’re dancing around. In the senior citizen‘s home, they were singing, taking turns on the microphone. They were just happy to have visitors, any visitor, even if all you could give them is your company.
But on the chair, many are reserved. I know they feel comfortable when they close their eyes — I’m happy I am able to put them in a moment of peace at that time. Others don’t talk in the beginning but it’s a matter of me, as a professional, building that trust. One little girl called Pusa — who always has dirt on her face so she looks like a cat — I cut her hair for the first time six weeks ago and she did not say a word. I came back this time and she approached me first, tapping me, saying, “Can you cut my hair?”
Why do you keep doing it?
The bottom line of what I do as a hairstylist is to make people happy. That’s where I’m able to find success. It doesn’t matter if I am expensive or free. Whether you’re homeless or a billionaire, we can all appreciate how a good hairstyle can make us feel. It goes to show we’re all human. We grow hair and lose hair in exactly the same way.
You are not only the Bench Fix Clay Doh ambassador, you also provided education and advanced courses to the barbers and hairstylists at Bench Barbers and at Fix Salon. Did you emphasize certain techniques?
I taught them about minor details, things that make you go like, “Oh, why didn’t I think of that?” It’s taken me 15 to 18 years to learn these little things. Now I’ve shared my secrets, they can grow quickly.
I taught women’s long layering haircuts. For men, square shapes, primarily a masculine shape to emphasize the jaw. What happens with most men’s cutting is they cut into round shapes and cut into the hairline. It’s exposing head shapes even if they’re not appealing. It’s important to do strong square shapes to add weight and counteract certain areas in different skulls.
Barber and salon haircuts — should there be a difference?
I bridge the two. Most barbers can do the fades and sides but don’t know what to do at the top; then hair salon stylists know how to do the top but not the fades. Stylists would usually say, “I don’t use clippers and machines.” That’s an uneducated approach to hairstyling.
Men’s haircuts are more difficult than women’s haircuts by far. It’s more intricate. Everything is exposed. You make one mistake and it shows. Not that it’s okay to make mistakes in women’s hair, but having precision as a barber translates well into doing women’s hairstyles because it builds into doing strong shapes with women’s hairstyles as well.
I’m sure you’ve seen this cut on boys all over Manila — shaved on the sides, long at the top, at times knotted into a mini-bun. Is it time to say goodbye to it?
I’m not gonna say I created it, but I had it before everybody five years ago. Then I saw one or two people walking by the salon in Chelsea with that hair. I shaved it off before it got watered down. When done correctly, it is still a cool style. The barber must distinguish whether or not a certain trend will work for the customer and not just copy what they see in the picture.
What haircut do you recommend for the Filipino man?
Hair texture plays an important role in how you approach a haircut from the very beginning even before you can cut the hair. Asian hair or Filipino hair tends to be more difficult to cut than Caucasian hair, for instance, because Caucasian hair tends to lay down and hug the head but Asian hair grows straight. For Asian men and Filipino men, there’s a fine line between different lengths. You either go really short or have enough hair length so the hair starts to lay down or else it’ll just stick straight out and it won’t look so appealing.
How about for daily hair styling?
A lot of men still don’t use hair products but I can only do so much for when you walk out of the shower. It’s up to the stylist and barber to educate the client. I do think more men and women should learn how to use a blow drier.
In your work in the salon, any memorable drastic hair transformations?
Celebrities and people on the higher-end scale of the industry tend not to make drastic transformations, especially men. It can make or break their image. I have been cutting (CBS news anchor) Bill Whitaker’s hair for a long time and he never wanted me to touch his moustache (laughs). I always ask to trim it but he doesn’t let me, that’s his signature.
At a certain point in your career, no matter what you do, the energy you give is the energy that you get. I can pretty much pick and choose who gets to sit in my chair at this point in my career. I like to keep it cool. I pride myself on having all the coolest people to sit in my chair.
I’ve cut Ben Chan’s hair. I’ve done it in a chair in his kitchen in New York, Filipino-style. We had dinner at his house. I cooked Filipino food. At the end of the dinner, you see Ben and (Bench in-house architect) Miguel Pastor doing the dishes, cleaning everything — and people look up to these influential people, yet they’re very real people.
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Bench Barbers is located inside Bench Fix Salon in Glorietta 4, Ayala Center, Makati. Bench Fix Clay Doh is sold in Bench Barbers, Bench Fix Salon branches, PCX stores, leading personal care stores nationwide, and online at benchtm.com.