Words by Shay Ball
Images by Jasmine Durhal
“Here, let me get you a seat.” Angelito Mallari Jr., or Jay-R as he’s been known for as long as I can remember, steps away, then comes back with a stool he places closer to his station. I’m unloading my Jansport in the barber’s chair next to me, while Jassie, our photographer, readies her equipment from a black leather bench a few feet away. A miniature cutout of a cartoon version of Jay-R tail spinning into a barber’s pole is propped up against an assortment of equipment lined neatly along the mirror across from us. In its reflection, I watch as Jay-R prepares for his next client.
At 29-years old, his demeanor rivals that of a much older man; from the precision with which he cleans his clippers to the warmth in his greetings. Jay-R is at once, a veteran and a pupil; the former, in his chosen field, while the latter, in life as an increasingly notable celebrity barber. Raised in a sleepy suburb of Northern California, Jay-R has come a long way from cutting hair in his parents’ garage. Growing up, on any given day, cars could be seen lined up along the curb on his street with guys looking to get one of his signature cuts. A factor that contributed to Jay eventually enrolling in barber’s college to secure the license that would enable him to cut in a shop. “I was cutting so much hair that the neighbors would complain about the cars.”
What began as a trial trim on a middle school classmate evolved into a full-scale garage operation, complete with an appointment book and a wall for clients to sign. The wall remains intact and untouched, a sentimental reminder of Jay-R’s journey from the house in a quiet cul-de-sac in his Glen Cove neighborhood, to the ever-busy Legends Barbershop on Fairfax in Los Angeles, California.
His client arrives–an old friend from back home–and he immediately gets started on his cut. I’m hesitant to jump straight into my questions as he taps a trimmer carefully against his friend’s hairline. But his friend suggests otherwise. “He’s a pro,” he advises. “We’ve been at this for years.” I begin our conversation with a topic that we both love to discuss–our hometown, Vallejo.
BevelCode: When people think of the Bay, they tend to think about Oakland or San Francisco. How would you describe Vallejo to someone that was unfamiliar with the city?
Jay-R: It’s definitely diverse. I call it a hidden gem. It’s got a lot of pride. It’s a place where people just have a lot of talent.
BC: You first started cutting hair back in middle school because you wanted to buy a pair of shoes. What was it that kept you going once you met that milestone?
JR: I wanted to be the best in my town. I wanted to show people that I was this Filipino guy that could cut different types of hair. I was comparing myself to guys that cut in shops that were good. I wanted to make sure that when people sat in my chair, and went back into those shops, that my name would be heard. I wanted to be that barber.
BC: You ran your shop from your garage for a while. Did you ever cut in a shop in Vallejo?
JR: I did. It was called J and J. It was a Filipino-owned shop that felt like you were in my uncle’s living room. I chose to go there because I was testing it out to see how it felt to be in a shop. I wanted to see what it was like in that setting. It was near a new high school, and I thought I was going to open my shop around there. I was going to cater to the high school students and the young kids that wanted to be fresh. I was in that place for about three years, then started taking appointments. Kids that I used to cut are now cutting in that shop because they want to be barbers. I was cutting kids that were like 9 or 10, and now, one owns his own shop. It’s crazy. It created this career path for these kids. I still go back to that shop and talk to those kids and ask them if they need any help. Drop game on them.
BC: Did you have someone like that for you?
JR: When I was in the Bay, I would search for that. There was a time when I was transitioning from Vallejo, and I used to drive to San Mateo and work at this barbershop called Headshots. There was a guy, his name was Shane, and he had a website, and I went to that shop because I wanted to pick his brain, ask him how he got that popping. How did he organize his shop to be that way? So he was one of them, and the guy who helped me go to school. But to continually be a mentor? No, I don’t think so. People inspired me to do this, but I never really had a mentor. That’s why I’m going out of my way to be that for younger people—the ones I cut that are cutting now—to give them direction so they don’t make the same mistakes I did. If you want to do this, go somewhere, move. Get out of the city. And even if they’re not a barber, people come to me from Vallejo and say, “what did I do?” I want to be able to tell people to go out there, take a risk. You really have to find your gift and passion and what you want to do. Especially someone from Vallejo. Like, what are you gonna do?
BC: Do you remember the first cut you ever gave someone?
JR: [Laughs] I remember who it was, I remember how long it took, and I remember how shitty it looked. His name was Nathan Bautista. I told him, “yo, I got some clippers at the house. If you let me cut your hair, I’ll cut your hair for free for the rest of your life.” The first cut took like two or three hours. I basically only had the clippers. I put a guard on for a stop, but I didn’t know anything. There have been times, where it’s like, yeah I remember that cut. But I thank that dude to this day, because if it wasn’t for him letting me do that…man. After that, the next person that saw his hair would be like, “who cut your hair?” I could say I did that. It wasn’t good, but whatever. I remember that phase.
In high school, I had a friend that was this big basketball player. He was in my wedding. I would cut his hair before every game. So not only would our school see it, but the other school would see it. And if he traveled for a game, those schools would see it. I would do things like put signature lines in his head, and then it would make the paper. I can’t thank him enough because he believed in me just as much as anybody else. He was the one that told me to move down here.
BC: Do you ever get nervous when you’re cutting a new client?
JR: It’s a different type of nerves. There always has to be an icebreaker, but I’ve been in this business long enough to feel confident. I tested myself the other day. Someone walked in and he asked if I had time, and I was like “yeah.” I asked myself, can I have this person want to come back to me, and give them a dope haircut, and trust me enough? I still get goosebumps sometimes right before I start because I want to kill it, I wanted to make the cut so clean. I want to make the person feel something.
BC: What influenced you to learn more about cutting black hair?
JR: There was this transition where me and my friends wanted to get lineups and tapers and those styles of haircuts. I thought it would be kind of weak to only know how to cut one type of hair. I thought, let me go figure out how to understand different textures. You have to know the angles, and which way the hair grows. If you go one way and you’re supposed to go another way; I mean there are ways to fix it, but you want to cut in the right direction. Because I could find those mixtures of hair and technique, I think that’s what made me good.
BC: I’m still surprised by the number of people I meet from the Bay whenever I’m down here. What led you to LA from Vallejo? What’s kept you here?
JR: I moved here because I wanted to cut here, at this specific barbershop. Before, it used to be on Wilshire. It was one of the first barbershops to have a website. My goal coming out here was to go to the best black barbershop and learn how to cut hair. I did my research, and I wanted to go far enough to challenge myself. One day I walked in here, saw the owner and I asked him what it would take for me to work here. I just wanted to challenge myself, because Filipinos would get these amazing lineups and I felt like, well, where does it come from? I wanted to learn from what I thought was the best.
As far as what’s kept me here, I step out and see people doing different stuff around me. Being here keeps me at a level where I can keep being creative, and still hustle. I want to be on top of my game. I want to be able to cater to new people, I want to grow. I’ve grown with so many people in the industry that I don’t want to just leave them. I’ve built so many relationships here that have helped me to grow to where I am now.
BC: How did you build your clientele here?
JR: It was everything. There were a few people from back home that had moved here, and they plugged me with different people. I entered this shop and there’s traffic flowing, but word of mouth is what did it. The owner placed me here in the front, so I was this Filipino kid in a black barbershop. The owner of Pink Dolphin came in and I didn’t know who he was but I knew what he was wearing. And he came in and I told him, “yo let me cut your hair,”and he liked it and then he referred me. The best way of marketing is word of mouth. Even with social media, that’s still word of mouth. But at the end of the day, if someone gives you that cosign, that’s it.
BC: You’ve said before you feel like you have about thirty minutes to gain someone’s trust once they sit in your chair. How do you go about gaining that trust?
JR: By trying to connect with people in every way possible. I’ll ask about their kids. Where they’re from? What school did they go to? I have enough confidence in myself to know that I can cut different kinds of hair. The haircut’s not going to be the issue. Going back to Vallejo, because I was able to grow around different cultures, I use that experience to connect with everyone. So I ask questions about what’s going on in their lives, and the next time, I’ll remember those things. The last thing I want to do is continue to talk about myself. What I like to do is connect with people. Get to know them. And say it was a celebrity or something, I’ll do my research. I’ll ask them questions about their interests.
Everyone deserves to feel like their best selves. What I do, it’s all about confidence, and giving that to people.
BC: It’s no secret that you cut some of the best athletes in the NBA. Have you been shocked by the influence and attention that’s been given to these athletes’ personal styles? It’s the cuts that you see on a lot of these players that end up on kids in schools all around the world. It’s amazing.
JR: Growing up, let’s say Allen Iverson, everyone would look at his hair and everyone would want braids. When I’m doing DeAndre’s hair, or Steph’s hair, little kids look up to them, and the only thing they can really do is get their shoes, get their jerseys, and get their haircuts. There was one point when I was doing Steph’s hair at the beginning of the season, and it was short at the time. So then it became a question of, “okay, how am I going to start off this season? How am I going to let people know that he’s getting his hair cut?” We decided to grow his hair out, give it the sponge curl, and then fade his line out so it’d be crisp enough for television. I had to find this balance between haircuts on TV and haircuts in real life, because it is not the same. If it’s skin bald, on TV, it looks a certain way. The TV captures something that makes it look different. I had to do a fade that looks so good on television that people would be like “I want that,” whatever that is. I have barber friends that have kids come in and say they want the Steph Curry cut. Whether or not they know I did it, it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. Everyone deserves to feel like their best selves. What I do, it’s all about confidence, and giving that to people.
BC: People from the Bay, Vallejo especially, we tend to take extra special pride in the fact that one of our own “made it.” Do you feel that kind of love from the people back home?
JR: The way I’ll feel like I made it is if I know that someone else feels like they can be successful because of what I’m doing. Everyone else has ways of feelings successful—money, fame, whatever. That doesn’t matter to me. I want to make sure someone can see my story about barbering and feel like they can do whatever the hell they want to do, you know?
Back home, there was a group of friends that used to come into my shop and get their hair cut. Every week they’d come in together, and I would talk to them about school and life and how important it was to stay friends. I promised them that if they stayed friends and graduated together, I’d get them two rooms for prom. And they stayed friends and graduated, and I got them rooms for prom. They partied too hard and it got shut down, but still, they stayed friends. It’s important to be around people that believe in you.
My older brother’s friends played a huge part in my career. My older brother Steven, and his friends, they would get their hair cut by me. Before I left, I remember sitting there and just seeing the support of people that said I could do it. They’d say, “I know you’re going to do something great.” When people believed in me enough to know that I could do something and get out of that place, it motivated me to make sure I continued to grind. They would say things like “man, you were created for so much more.” I was hella nervous and it took a lot of prayer. I always call it a leap of faith. I wouldn’t be doing this if God didn’t create me to do this. There’s no way in hell I would have ever thought I’d be cutting Stephen Curry’s hair at this point in his career. A kid from Vallejo? Hell no. Man, that just gave me chills.