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Electric cuts and spray paint: the DIY world of hair punk Keisuke Watari

After opening his London salon less than a year ago, the Japanese hair vanguard talks about his unconventional method to cutting hair and why some stylists are more masturbatory in their approach than others

Less than two hours into my session with Keisuke Watari and he’s spraypainting the word ‘SAD’ onto my head with an airbrush. Less than a year since he opened his salon in east London, which is unnamed and websiteless, the Japanese hair stylist has attracted a cult following through word-of-mouth, with fashion renegades like model Gigi Hari, Harry Freegard, and Ayesha Tan Jones among his clientele. His unconventional techniques see him apply colour as an artist would apply paint to a canvas: bold and unafraid. He loads the canister with black paint and begins the process. “This is performance art,” he grins.

Prepped with an open brief – I asked him to incorporate the colour orange into the look – Watari spens the first portion of the session looking for creative leads – the anime figurines hanging off my handbag, a hand-beaded bracelet made by a friend. Little details like these that reflect a client’s personality, he thinks, are crucial when ideating a look. The subject is the main inspiration, and in this instance, the subject is sad – at least, from behind.

Watari’s style is hard to pin down. As with his eclectic clientele, his portfolio is extremely varied. Sharp buzz cuts with devilish horn-like stylings stand beside spray paint crosses and neon Sailor Moon dos. A futuristic take on Chinese queue hair, an ancient style worn by Manchurians, is executed in fiery reds and severe blacks, while a fluorescent green look literally glows in the dark.

Below, Watari gives us an insight into his process, his inspirations, and why some hair stylists are more “masturbatory” in their approach than others.

What made you get into hair styling?

Keisuke Watari: When I graduated high school, I sort of lost my mind in what I wanted to do. The hairdresser who was cutting my hair at the time in Osaka invited me to his salon and took me under his wing. It wasn’t ever my serious intention to get into hair styling, but that’s how it played out.

What would you say are your main points of reference when approaching a cut?

Keisuke Watari: The balance between surrealism and daily life. For me, surrealism is what looks normal but becomes strange at some point. Likewise, I take a lot of inspiration from the people around me, like if someone catches my eye on the street whose look isn’t conventional, but strange and interesting.

What about people, is there anyone in particular who inspires your aesthetic?

Keisuke Watari: A lot (laughs). But I’d say Hide (Hideto Matsumoto), the lead guitarist of Japanese rock band X. He’s been a formative influence to me ever since my teen years. He has the ability to make very soft music as well as very hard music. I can empathise with that. If you look at my Instagram, you can see that some styles are very harsh, while others are soft.

How collaborative is the styling process between you and the client?

Keisuke Watari: Most of the customers leave the choice of style up to me. I don’t explain much about how it’s going, because I want to make hair as alive as possible. I want to cherish the lived inspiration and catch the client’s vibes and personality little by little by spending time together.

So you obviously just spray painted my head. Is this something you’ve been doing for a while? How did you first get into it?

Keisuke Watari: Actually, the spray paint came in very recently, literally within the last month. I was working on a shoot where I noticed the make-up artist using an airbrush and I wanted to replicate that with hair.

I think that technical skills can be learned on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, but what’s missing is the life behind that. The texture that airbrushing gives is more freehand, it emphasises the DIY spirit, it’s less contrived.

“Doing everything immaculately for the sake of technical perfection is like masturbation: you’re not doing it for the client, but for yourself” – Keisuke Watari

So, you want to strike a balance between the technical and what’s authentic to the person?

Keisuke Watari: Because I don’t come from a fashion background, where hair is styled for a shot or a look, my main focus is on the customer, and they have to enjoy life after the haircut. Doing everything immaculately for the sake of technical perfection is like masturbation: you’re not doing it for the client, but for yourself.

When I was a teenager, for example, I hated that ‘fresh haircut’ look. It was too clean. I love it when people who don’t wash their hair, the grunge, the messiness. What’s cool is not trying too hard.

How would you describe your goals for the future?

Keisuke Watari: I want to open up a second salon in Japan. In Japan, the classic haircut is very soft and feminine and natural. I was really bored of this. In the UK, there’s this push for immaculate technique and perfect trims. I want to create a middle ground between these two.