“The NYC Hair Stylist That Gives Free Haircuts To The Homeless”
Feel good click bait articles always get me, talented people doing good things give me hope in a crazy world filled with so much scary shit and people like Mark make the world a better place, one haircut at a time. Months later after reading about him, I found out he lived in Jersey City and that he was good friends with my Ani Ramen squad. I pulled some strings and invited him to join me to #SlurpSipRepeat and tall about his life’s work.
What’s your name?
My name is Mark Bustos.
What do you do?
I’m a hairstylist. I’ve been doing hair since I was 14, and I’m 35 now. It’s been 21 years and it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my life.
How did you start?
I started out of my parent’s garage when I was 14 years old. I was messing up all my friends’ hair in Nutley, NJ. Over time, I worked my way up in the hair industry and it eventually got to a point where I was trying to find success. It wasn’t until I stopped looking for it when I found it. That’s when I started my charity. I call myself a hairstylist/humanitarian.
Why did you start the charity?
I started doing hair young and worked my way up. I went to college first and graduated with a Bachelor’s in business. To this day, I never picked up my diploma. After college, I went to hair school to get my license. I was already doing hair for a long time and, after I got my license, I went to assist at a high-end hair salon. It was kind of tough because I kind of knew what I was doing and had to go all the way back down to the very beginning. All I was allowed to do was pull hair out of the color wheels and do shampoos. I’d see all the stylists cutting hair and thought, “I could do this.” Eventually, I got to the point where I was the best assistant and they wouldn’t let me progress any further, so I decided to leave. I peaked and there was no room for growth. I always tell myself that I feel comfortable in second place and not first because there’s always room for growth and someone to be inspired by. I got to the point where I worked in one of the top hair salons in New York City charging (at the time) $180 for a haircut, men or women. I still didn’t feel successful, so I took a step back. I was tired from grinding and pushing myself so hard, and I decided to go to the Philippines to visit family without a grandmaster plan. When you go to developing countries like the Philippines, you see what real poverty looks like – children living on the street, 4-5 years old, no parents and taking care of each other. These people in certain areas can’t beg for money because everyone’s in the same situation. I rented a chair in a little barbershop with a garage door that opens up – 100% humidity, 100 degrees – and we invited the kids to come in for haircuts. I knew I would do something good for them, but what happened to me is something I couldn’t have imagined. I realized how powerful and special what I do for a living is, and my job as a hairstylist is simply to make people happy no matter who they are. My job is to make you feel better than you did when you sat in my chair. I realized I could take this anywhere so I went to New York, packed a bag, walked through the streets of New York. That’s when I started cutting homeless people’s hair in New York.
Did you go up to them individually and offer haircuts?
The first time I ever approached anyone, I was nervous. I went to The Bowery Mission because that’s where a lot of them hang out. I walked by, paced back and forth, and there were groups of people standing outside. I couldn’t find the courage to walk up to anybody because I was nervous and didn’t know what to say. Something inside of me pulled me toward the individual standing alone and in my head, I was thinking, “What am I doing? What am I going to say?” Without even thinking, I said, “I want to do something nice for you today” and asked if they were hungry. It was around 5PM and they were all waiting outside because they were going to open up the food pantry. I asked him, “If you could choose anything to eat, what would you want?” He had to think about it because when’s the last time anyone gave him a choice, right? Something about human beings is that we always like to have a choice in life. We think we’re doing something good by giving homeless people a half-eaten slice of pizza or whatever we want, but if I had a choice, I’d rather eat something that I want.
He said something as simple as fried chicken and rice from a Chinese restaurant. We went to get some food and then I told him what I wanted to do, what I had to offer, and it was kind of like a cherry on top. I told him I’m a professional hairstylist and told him what I wanted to do. He was very reserved and very respectful. He agreed to the haircut and made sure to take my time, hear his story, and give him the best haircut of his life. At the end of the haircut, I handed him the mirror and the first thing he said was, “Do you know anybody who’s hiring? I want to get a job.” I was surprised and that’s when I realized this is really powerful. From that moment on, every single Sunday that summer, I kept going. I was waiting for something to stop me. That’s expanded into traveling the world. I don’t really go out in the streets as much as I used to, but I work with organizations to do things like teach haircutting classes and give tips.
How has your life changed since then? Do you feel like you found your purpose?
I totally found my purpose and found what success really means, and it’s not about money.
What does success mean to you?
My motto is: I’m either expensive or I’m free, but never cheap.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently building out a new salon in Chelsea, 17th and 10th. I’m really stressed out because of all the stuff that goes along with opening a new business. It took about four months to get all my permits and approvals before I could start building out the space. I’m already two months behind and paying rent on the space, and one month in New York City is not cheap.
What’s the vision behind the salon?
I have another salon in Summit, NJ that I opened up called the Silver Vine Room. That’s been open for a year and a half. Going back to my whole thing about being in second place, I was able to come up with that name because silver is second place, and vines grow uncontrollably. It’s kind of like uncontrollable growth. I looked up the name Silver Vine and it turned out to be a plant. My partners and I wanted to keep to that theme and we came up with My Darling Ivy as the name of our salon. Ivy is one of the most resilient plants out there, and darling is used to balance such a strong and powerful word. We thought of Mother’s Ivy and it ended up sounding like breast milk, and Devil’s Ivy didn’t work. So we came up with My Darling Ivy.
That’s awesome. Are you excited about this new chapter?
I’m very excited!
You’re also a dad! How do you balance everything?
I am also a dad! I don’t know how to explain it, but you just make it work.
How long have you been living in Jersey City?
About 6 years now.
Do you like it?
I love where I live right now, I just need more space.
How long have you been coming to Ani Ramen?
Luck’s been a really good friend of mine forever. When he got married – he got married young – I was still taking friends and family out of my garage. On his wedding day, he and his groomsmen came to my garage to get their haircut. We were around 19.
How has it been to see his growth as a business owner?
It’s crazy because even though we’re in completely different industries, surrounding yourself with people who are better and smarter than you is always going to help you progress yourself. Being surrounded by people like Luck and Israel, you want to keep pushing yourself.
They also have the best ramen in Jersey City.
I can’t eat ramen anywhere else, I swear.
Any future plans or goals?
I do different campaigns with brands. Right now, I’m in the middle of a campaign with State Farm and in collaboration with Friends for their 25th anniversary. I went to the Friends pop-up on press day and it was fun. A lot of my things this year including shooting a commercial with Nike and Under Armour.
Do you still cut hair?
I do, and I’ll never stop cutting hair. I don’t cut hair behind a chair in a salon as much as I used to with all this stuff going on. In the hair world, people like to say “6 months booked” because they think it makes them sound more desirable. Really, it just makes them sound like bad business people. At the end of the day, we’re all somewhat entrepreneurs. When you say you’re 6 months booked, you’re doing something wrong. I always say you shouldn’t be booked for more than two weeks. Otherwise, you’re not charging enough money. Every time I’m booked too far in advance, I just raise my prices. It opens up my book and now I have a life.
And now you get to travel more often.
Yes! I did a charity trip to India, to the Dharavi slum where they filmed Slumdog Millionaire. A bunch of hairstylists and I went out – when I travel, I always request local drivers. Our hotel called for a local driver and we told him we wanted to give free haircuts to the community. Sure enough, he made a phone call right away and drove us somewhere. They spoke English and knew the land, but were not wealthy. He took me there and the entire neighborhood welcomed us with open arms. We cut hair for 6 hours.
It must be such an amazing feeling. When we get haircuts, we feel amazing and confident, so I can’t even imagine how incredible it must be to people who have struggles going on to feel confident. It’s like the first step to becoming better versions of themselves. Do you ever get emotional when you do it?
I’m not a very sensitive person, but there are times where you can’t help it. I shot a series for a station down in Miami and they caught me crying on camera. It happens.
So who does your hair?
My cousin usually cuts my hair for me, or my business partner. I wish I could cut my own hair.
What do you do for fun?
I don’t do much. I snowboard in the wintertime. I’m always busy.
And your daughter’s also a genius!
She’s a little artist. She had her own solo exhibition in the City. Her mom is friends with an artist and they petitioned her for a gallery and they picked it up. It started with The Cut in New York Mag, and then it snowballed. She sold 32/37 pieces.
How old is she?
She’s not even 3! She knows what’s going on. She only paints for 10 minutes at a time. With all the art and articles she has in the press, you’ll never find one with my name attached to it because I had no part in her success. I think it’s great because if my name was attached, it would almost take away from her work.
True. So how did social media help your business grow?
Social media has been great in helping get a positive message out in the world. For me as a hairstylist and personal business manager, it hasn’t done the same thing. Like I said, I worked my way up to this successful hairdresser status and had a full book. When all this press came out with me, a large part of the population couldn’t afford a haircut with me. A lot of people come up to me and know me as the person who does free haircuts, but I’m also the person who charges the most money in the world for a single haircut. I have a wide range of people sitting in my chair. I’m on a helicopter every two weeks charging 10 grand for a single haircut.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
I’m very normal, you don’t have to be a superhero or a saint to do good things in the world. I’m as normal as can be, I’m probably just as silly as anybody else out there. I’m 35 and act like I’m 9. I go through my own struggles and I’m stressed, but there’s something about doing good things for others and in turn, you’ll forever be blessed.