Illustration by Brett Ryder
Hair—we’ve all got it. No matter our ethnic makeup, we all fuss with it, fret over it, celebrate the good days, and mourn the put-a-cap-on-it bad days. While Los Angeles is hardly the only place whose residents are defined by their locks, this city houses the one spot that perhaps best proves that hair is the great equalizer.
The Hair Shop on Wilshire Boulevard, just off La Brea, has a clientele of platinum blonds in need of bleached bangs, tattooed brunets who want rooster feathers or ponytails, Asian and Latina teenagers preparing for proms, Orthodox Jews seeking “kosher” wigs, and African American mothers taking their daughters on back-to-school hair shopping sprees. Here, whether they clip, sew, glue, or tape on the extensions they seek, everyone has the same needs. “Their only mission is to be more beautiful,” says Ryan Tokko, the Korean-born owner. And everyone speaks the language of weave.
“You think it’s too light?” asks customer Kari Busse on a recent morning. The 33-year-old Valley resident examines a packaged bouquet of weave while tugging on her blond extensions.
“Too orange,” says the floor assistant, Michell Ko, whose name in Korean is Miae. Ko wears black microlocks stitched into her own fine strands. “This one, darker. This one, more good.”
Korean immigrants have long dominated the weave market, but historically in L.A. that market mostly catered to black clients. Not anymore. It is no secret that Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson don’t settle for tossing around their own tresses, and staff at the Hair Shop say they count Kim Kardashian, Adele, Sharon Stone, and Lady Gaga among their customers. “Honestly, I thought we were the only people who actually wore extensions—why would white people or Asians need hair?” says clerk Porsha Johnson, who’s 20 and black. “Then I came here. I was like, Whoa, ya’ll are more into it than African American people.”
Hair may be universal, but that doesn’t mean racism always falls to the cutting floor. Instead it blends beneath until the roots begin to show. Korean store manager Sherry Chang says some customers stereotype her. “They say, ‘Do you even have a green card?’ They look down on you like you are a piece of shit.” Other times, Chang says, customers have said, “Why don’t you give me a discount? Is it because I’m white?”
Tokko has been in the business for 30 years. He has another shop in Pacoima, and he opened a hair-processing factory in China to keep up with anticipated demand. During the 1992 riots, he slept inside his shops, but he wasn’t standing guard at his Pacoima store on the night when looters came. An African American man who owned the shop next door stopped them. “He and I were close friends,” Tokko says. “He told them, ‘No, not that store. He’s my brother.’ ” Only their businesses in the strip mall were spared. The experience taught him a lesson that he hopes his stores can reflect: “There’s no problem as long as you respect everyone’s culture.”
Erika Hayasaki is an assistant professor at UC Irvine’s Literary Journalism Program. She is the author of Dead or Alive (Kindle singles).