Master Barber and Mental Health Advocate Eric “KleanKut” Dixon Talks Hair Cutting Being an Art and Creating Safe Spaces for Black Men

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With his artistic background, dedicated and innovative master barber Eric “Kleankut” Dixon is able to achieve the intricacy of his designs as a barber. Dixon’s clean lines and attention to detail have made him more than deserving of his professional nickname, KleanKut. KleanKut is not only technically skilled and licensed, but he is also battle-ready. He has already competed and won several barber battles. Competent in everything from design and male hair units to facials, there are no limits to what he can do. When not traveling or competing nationally, he is producing unique styles and guaranteeing customer satisfaction for everyone he services in his private boutique location. The Quintessential Gentleman caught up with the mental health advocate to talk about hair, art and creating spaces for Black men.

What was it that inspired you to begin cutting hair?

I had a terrible experience with a barber where I developed a condition called dissecting cellulitis of the scalp, which caused boils to grow on my head and gave me permanent damage. After that, I was determined to stop going to the barbershop and started teaching myself everything about the trade. Eventually, I developed a real passion for it, and because I have always been a visual artist, I got really skilled with design. So I kept going. I built my brand and eventually went to barbering school. I have been cutting hair now for over a decade.

Why is it important to you that people acknowledge cutting hair as an art?

Like any other artistic medium, it takes time, patience and a high level of skill to create work that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. It is important to me because it’s not easy being able to blend a fade and master the symmetry of hair. There is a lot to it. Mastering different textures of hair, appeasing different tastes in styles. Using a sharp tool on someone’s fragile skin to create clean lines and working with a moving canvas takes years of practice. Experimenting with chemicals, color and mastering the different tools of the trade is not something anyone can just wake up and do. I think people don’t appreciate the eye it takes to do these things.

Barbershops are not always known to be a safe space for men who do not fit into a certain role of masculinity, how is your shop different, and why is it necessary to create that safe space?

I recognize that Barbershops can feel a lot like a men’s locker room, in terms of conversation, and I can see how that can feel like an intimidating environment for men that may feel like they can’t relate. I made KleanKut Grooming lounge an intimate and boutique setting so that all my clients could be serviced without having to sacrifice their identity.

In my lounge, my goal is to make everyone feel welcomed. It is important for me to create a safe space because everyone deserves to look and feel good. Hair is universal, its non-binary. Common gender divisions don’t matter in my chair. Neither does sexuality or anyone’s intolerance of other people’s lifestyles. In my lounge, my mission is my client, and their masculinity or even lack thereof is of no importance. One of my longtime clients is a former male cheerleader for the Washington Wizards and a brand partner for the high heel shoe line, ShoeDazzle. So whether he shows up to my shop in heels or his cheerleading uniform he will be treated with the same care and attention that I want all my clients to experience.

As a mental health advocate, what are some solutions we can work towards to erase the stigma behind Black men addressing their mental health?

Simply, more open conversation. Creating safe spaces to have a dialogue. Being honest about trauma and not holding it in. Transparency is contagious so I find when I share my battles with mental health other people feel comfortable sharing with me. Many men see mental illness as weak and therapy as unimportant. But by having more conversations and sharing personal testimonies, more people will feel more comfortable sharing their struggles. That begins the process of normalizing the conversation and breaking the stigma. I take my role as an advocate seriously, and I am in the process of becoming certified in Mental Health First Aid so that I can better serve in this capacity. These open conversations matter. It allows us to suggest therapy without it feeling like a personal attack.

What creative ideas could other barbers do to give back to their communities?

Providing services to those that need it most like the unemployed, former felons and the homeless. A complimentary cut could be a jump start into their next job interview or a better opportunity in life for someone that may not have even been able to afford it otherwise. Working with the youth, particularly young Black men. Getting them comfortable early by sharing their emotions. Barbers could use their skills to serve the underserved. Volunteering time in impoverished areas where people feel the least heard.

What advice do you have for someone just starting their barber journey?

The advice I would give to anyone starting out is to prepare for hard work. Do it for the passion and not the money. If you’re passionate, the money will come. Professionalism is almost more important than the haircut. Always be professional, timely and a people person. Develop good people skills and that will build client loyalty. Aim to master everything. Take care of your body and health because being on your feet all day is a lot of work. Ensure your hands, because as an independent contractor there isn’t any sick leave. So make sure you will be protected in case you are injured and aren’t able to work. Find a great mentor to show you the ropes. Never stop learning. Always be a student first. Be able to accept criticism in the beginning because that is the only way you will grow and improve. You’re going to mess up but you have to keep going. Don’t let one bad experience deter you.

Why do so many barbers ignore the fact they are a brand, and what are some ways that you have built your brand?

Many barbers starting out, including myself back in the day, may not always realize the importance of branding in the beginning. I think we sometimes focus so much on the craft and being the best, that we forget the significance of advertising and social media to reach new clientele. When I saw the success of a few fellow barbers, I reached out to them for tips and they educated me that it’s more to business than just hair. They taught me about the importance of scaling and self-investment. I then started the process of expanding my services to include spa skincare, hair replacement units, and natural hair styling. I also invested in my internet presence. I got serious and started moving more like a business. Over the years as my brand started to scale and I got my grooming lounge, I knew I needed help, so I found people to assist in the areas I didn’t specialize in. I owe a lot of my growth to Artiste House, they are a public relations and production firm in my area (DC/MD/VA). They have helped push my brand to the next level. Since investing in myself and hiring them as my PR firm, I have been connected to more celebrity clients including Mike Hill and Layla Khepri. I’ve been on PBS and my schedule is consistently booked.

Learn more about KleanKut here.

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