Ep 02: Hair Hustle

Nineties nightlife identity Astro Erle now gets by by doing the do

Astro Erle is a character once met, never forgotten. In the beginning it is purely physical: facial tattoos, a pout to rival Pete Burns and an arresting hairstyle that could be any color on the spectrum depending on the day you catch him. His fashion muse is Vivienne Westwood and he combines pieces from her collection with homemade couture cobbled together with safety pins. 

Astro is not as visible as some of the other hustlers. He is not out on the streets every day touting for customers, shouting for attention on the corners or in the subways. But he is living a hand-to-mouth existence that requires him to use his skills to raise cash on an ad-hoc basis. For Astro that is cutting hair – or, more poetically, Freelance Styling. A typical Facebook post might read: “My cellphone will be turned off tomorrow if I can’t pay my bill. Anyone need a haircut?” 

We met Astro through our friend, Sheena, who recognized that he would be a great subject for our series profiling street-level entrepreneurs. Sheena didn’t need to say much to sell us on the idea. I was hooked when she mentioned that he was a former Club Kid. Beginning with the film Party Monster and then progressing through a couple of documentaries and lots of independent research, I had a long-lasting fascination with the story of Michael Alig and his band of misfits, the Club Kids. I was nervous and excited about meeting someone who was only one degree of separation away from a notorious figure I had read so much about.

Sheena had recently had her hair styled by Astro and she offered the use of her apartment for a “hair-cutting party” where we could film Astro at work. The haircutting party is Astro’s most lucrative modus operandi. For guests at the party, it is a relaxing way to wait your turn for a haircut and for Astro it is the most efficient way to make money quickly, with a group of clients gathered in the one home. As Astro explained to me while flitting around the heads of various friends in Sheena’s living room, he had “studied under the best” and worked in many salons – indeed, he once had his own salon. But his refusal to conform made him a tough sell for more conservative salons.

Watching Astro at work inspired impromptu trips to the ATM to withdraw the $60 fee. As the lively party spilled from the backyard to the kitchen, guests took turns having a one-on-one consultation before taking the chair to be transformed by an Astro Cut.

“I’m not a barber, I’m an artist,” Astro insisted. “I have visions; I dream about hair.”

Forget all that rigmarole with the shampoo and basin, Astro worked quickly and intuitively on dry hair with a razor as his main sculpting tool. Each new creation garnered more and more appreciation and a new customer. All told Astro walked away with $600 cash from a few hours setting up shop in the living room of a ground floor apartment in Bushwick.

A few days after the party, when we were all still getting used to our new looks, I decided that I needed to know more about Astro the person to fill in his backstory. It didn’t take much to set up another meeting in Tompkins Square Park. We hung out with Astro as he enjoyed a typical day as an off-duty hustler. Sipping cans of malt liquor on a park bench, surrounded by a posse of friends and associates, Astro willingly opened up because he wants his story to be heard. In fact, Astro believes he should have his own reality TV show, and we think so too.

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