Photos and video by Jose Calvo with music for video by Chicago band, Los Gold Fires.
When it comes to the cultural significance of hair and beauty throughout history, in the article, *It’s Not Just Hair: Historical and Cultural Considerations for an Emerging Technology, Deborah Pergament explains that hair can be viewed “as a gender and sexual signifier” to which “inferences and judgments about a person’s morality, sexual orientation, political persuasion, religious sentiments and, in some cultures, socio-economic status can sometimes be surmised by seeing a particular hairstyle.” Hair can reflect anything, from unique personal styles to fashion forward trends to absolutely nothing at all.
For Gilberto Castro, exploring his craft through the art of hair design has provided almost never-ending opportunities to create something as unique as each individual he styles. His success as a Latino business-owner and entrepreneur is reflected beyond requests for his artistic hair styling techniques. Multiple testimonials, reviews and shout-outs speak highly of an individual who goes beyond the task at hand. Through his dedication, he creates a welcoming atmosphere and a space of comfort for self-expression.
“My goal with my work is to make people feel good.” – Gilberto Castro
Born and raised in Chicago, in the Pilsen neighborhood, the idea of styling hair or working in a beauty shop was never something Castro thought he would do. He grew up surrounded by hair stylists, including his mother who began a family tradition by opening and running a successful beauty studio in the garage of their home. His sister would eventually take on the family tradition by becoming a hair stylist, too. They would eventually open up BCS Hair Design in Pilsen. It’s been going strong now, beyond Pilsen at this point, for more than 25 years.
“I wanted to be an artist, that’s it,” he explains. “Growing up in the neighborhood, on 18th Street, my true teachers were all the 18th Street artists that I grew up with like Robert Valadez, and all those artists who really influenced me when I was younger. I wanted to be an artist just like them,” he says.
Castro says he feels that success came because he didn’t have a plan B. After graduating from Benito Juarez Academy, he knew what he liked but didn’t exactly know what he was going to focus on. Then, in his early 20s, he talks about the pivotal moment that changed the course of his life.
“My mother asked me to join her at a hair show with the excuse that she needed me to help her carry things,” he says. “I didn’t want to go and I even told my mom it wasn’t a place for me to be. But, going to that hair show was very impactful for me. I just fell in love with it.” And just like that, Castro immersed himself in the craft and soon joined the family business.
What was it about the show that moved you?
The first thing that I really enjoyed was the fact that all these guys on stage were in black clothes looking like cool goth rock kids. It was the coolest thing for me because I was born and raised in the goth and rock scene of Chicago. I really loved that! I thought, ‘I could do that,’ and right away I wanted to jump in. Plus they were hanging out with models and doing beautiful hair. I didn’t realize this was something that was ahead for me.
At this point, right before the show, you’re thinking, ‘this isn’t something I want to do.’ Were the people around you thinking the same thing when you jumped into it?
Most definitely! Everyone that I remember when I started in 1996 was wondering what was going on with me. At that time I was the only straight guy in Pilsen hairdressing and it was just something new, and, of course the question was asked when I first started hairdressing… like, Gil, what’s going on? And the answer was simple – I fell in love with this career and I’m going to follow it and I don’t care what people think.
What did you want out of this once you decided to fully embark on this path?
I’ve always enjoyed working with people, communicating, connecting. I realized that hair is that.
When I was in high school I had an idea about becoming a counselor because I enjoyed talking with people and helping them out. I feel like I’m someone who really enjoys motivating people and I realized that with hair, that part of it is there. You can be a friend, a counselor, a type of therapist. You can do so much more when hair styling because you touch and connect with more than just their hair. I believe that anyone can give a good haircut, but not everyone will make you feel good. My goal with my work is to make people feel good.
How do you make people feel good?
I make them feel good because I give them the whole drawing, like the whole picture of what their hair is for. Their hair is just the frame of them. They are the artiste but the frame is what’s going to help them stand out and what makes that artiste look so good. I’m just adding that little extra… like chopping out some layers, watching them transform. That, for me is like… I get the goosebumps especially when I hear, “I love my hair!” That’s my favorite thing to hear.
What did you grow up listening to and what is your favorite kind of music?
I grew up with all kinds of music that came together in Pilsen back in the early 90s. One of my favorite bands from Pilsen back then was Crudos. I’ve also had so many Spanish rock influences in my life. All of that added to loving music. Also, I always wanted to be in a band, and I played around with it, but I didn’t see it as a career, I mostly saw it as a hobby, for fun.
So I wondered, since I like music so much how can I make this connection? I figured everyone in the music needs a haircut, no matter what you play, you need one and since that’s something I’m good at I decided to bring these two things together and that’s how I created my other business, Backstage Cuts.
Backstage Cuts, which he runs with his studio director Erandi Tovar, soon took off through word of mouth as Castro told his salon clients about his new goals. He wanted to style musicians, celebrities and all types of artists working in music. And so it happened that through his friend Roger, who was dating someone whose sister was dating the lead singer of The Plain White Tees, that Back Stage Cuts became official.
Castro received a call from Roger, who was at the Allstate Arena for the Plaint White Tees concert, and asked Castro to come through to cut Tom Higgenson’s hair. Castro immediately jumped on the opportunity, which would soon lead to calls from bigger bands.
Almost ten years later, Back Stage Cuts has been an official part of hundreds of concerts and festivals where he styles hair for major headliners at events like Lilith Fair, Mayhem Festival and Riot Fest, among many others. Backstage Cuts became so successful, they were even part of the Warped Tour for nine years in a row.
“My goal as a hair dresser when it comes to working with musicians is to bring back that entourage feeling to bands when they visit Chicago. I want to build that up. You can see the difference in a band’s performance when they’ve just been taken care of before going on stage. They feel that energy, they feel those good vibes, and it shows when they play.”
How do you explain hair cutting and styling as art?
It’s art because it’s a form of expression. Hair is like the icing on the cake, that first impression you make on the world. It’s a great way to show people a little bit about you, an introduction, before they get to know the real you.
Are you proud of your Latinidad?
I’m a very proud Latino… very, very proud. I was born and raised in Chicago but both my parents are Mexican and in our home, in Pilsen, we weren’t even allowed to speak English when we were little until we began going to school. Our parents were very traditional and very cultured and wanted us to continue their traditions at home. My father taught me a lot about being bilingual and to be proud of representing our culture.
I am proud to say I was the first Latino to ever work with Paul Mitchell in the state of Illinois almost 18 years ago. This pushed me to do more and be better. I truly believed that even if I didn’t fit in, I belonged there.
Would you say the people that you’ve touched have been satisfied?
(Laughing) Definitely… and in the hair industry also!
BCS Hair Design is now located at 927 W. 35th Street in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Castro and his team work hard to keep their customers satisfied through this salon as well as Backstage Cuts. For more information:
BCS Hair Design
927 W. 35th Street
Chicago, IL 60619
And, inspired by this artrepreneur and the passion he exudes in everything he does, here’s a little playlist in the style of Gilberto Castro.