You may know the Astor Place Hairstylists for their famed clientele & affordable yet trendy cuts – what you may not know is that it’s a hidden grotto of incredible art. Thanks to a partnership with START Shows, this Friday March 31st you’ll be able to see some incredible art for yourself.
‘The Barber Show’ – a month long exhibition from March 31st to April 28th – features an all-star cast of New York’s rising talents, the product of a collaboration between START Shows Founder Sophocles and Astor Hairstylists’s Manager Michael ‘Big Mike’ Saviello. The two met when Mike was one of the featured artist’s in January’s New You Show at One Art Space. The Barber Show is a continuation of their connection after a well-received drink-and-draw the two hosted at Astor Place Barbers in early March.
‘The Barber Show’ – a month long exhibition from March 31st to April 28th – features an all-star cast of New York’s rising talents, the product of a collaboration between START Shows Founder Sophocles and Astor Hairstylist’s Manager Michael ‘Big Mike’ Saviello.
Astoria-based Sophocles is the founder and principal curator of START Shows, and a talented artist in his own right, with a focus on comics, such as manga and anime. He went to college at SVA and got a BFA in cartooning. Whether it’s teaching kids about anime, curating art shows, or painting murals for Curbside Canvas, art has become a central point of Sophocles life.
As a curator, Sophocles and START shows focus on putting together a family-friendly environment, (no drugs, hate, or graphic content, “Just so that everyone can come to the show and enjoy it and experience it no matter what age they are,” he explained) and teaching artists how to be successful in selling their works.
“I tell all the artists at Start Shows the art of sales for art is usually the art of story of the piece and of the artist. And when the collector or the guests to the show connects with the artist’s story or the piece’s story somehow from their past or in some way from their life they’re more likely to buy the piece.” Sophocles explained. Mike concurred, “I think my story is what helps sell a lot of my art.”
Reflecting on their meeting, Sophocles shared: “[Michael] was one of the featured artists at New You. We started talking and he said why don’t you do a Doodle and Drink event at my barber shop? I thought that sounded cool, as I used to do life drawing at the School of Visual Arts and I already have experience drawing with live models. I was a teacher, a host, and a moderator and help out the students in the class when they need guidance. And Mike was just being very welcome and opening about the whole thing.”
Following up, Big Mike added, “I was very impressed with [Sophocles’] New You show. I told him, I’ve got a big space back there, and if you want to curate a show here at Astor Place we’ll take all my stuff down and put all the artists up.”
For those unfamiliar, The Astor Place Barber Shop is a local legend. The shop first opened in 1947, and it’s walls are decorated with the various celebrities who have come by for a clean cut. Big Mike regaled with the story of how he got involved.
“I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, close to New York… I had just finished college and I was looking for a job and I saw my godfather who was having coffee with my parents. I told him I was going to New York to look for work and he said come work for me tomorrow. I had no idea about Astor Place. I just knew he was a barber. I said what am I going to do, I’m not a barber. He said, no, no, you got to come, I need help.” Continuing, he explained, “he picked me up 6 O’clock in the morning. It was wintertime, we got there at 7:30am and already there was like 50 people outside waiting for haircuts and I’m like what the hell is this going on here. He gives me a clipboard and tells me to start taking their names… 40 years later I’m still here.”
During the pandemic, the Astor’s, fell on some rough times, as the Barber industry in particular was rocked. The original owners were forced to leave, however Big Mike led a group of investors to save the shop, and now he along with co-investors are the new owners.
But what is the connection between Astor Barber’s and art in the first place? Therein the answer lays with Big Mike’s unexpected art journey.
“My father wasn’t into art but his brothers were. They were Italian and very artsy all of them. They had beautiful paintings in their house ,and they saw I was interested as a little kid. They used to bring me to my great-uncle in Italy who was an artist. He would do paintings for me and I would bring it home. So, I was always interested in art, but you know life gets in the way. You get married, you get a job, you never the get time to paint.”
This was until about 6 years ago, at age 55, when a friend of Big Mike’s published his first book. “I’d known him for 30 years, he’s the same age as me and he’s a stock broker… He always wanted to write a book, and then he went out and did it.”
Inspired, Big Mike realized he deferred his dream of being a painter for too long. “I said I’m going to start painting no matter what. That night I go outside the shop and see there’s a big canvas. The sunflower one, that’s the first painting I ever did. I found that canvas leaning against the wall, there was a unicorn spray painted on it. And I dragged it down here and I put it over in the back and I said alright I’m going to start. The next day I came and went over it with white paint and a roller. So at lunch time, I went back and sketched out the picture I took of my wife with a sunflower. I had always said that if I ever start painting that’s going to be my first painting.”
Over the next two months, every day during lunchtime Mike would go into the back office and paint, eventually finishing his seminal first piece. To this day, he still paints in his the back room during his lunch hour. Slowly but surely, Mike continued painting and building a body of work. After a few years, Mike’s wife suggested he work with a model to help get his figurative work down, which is how he met Carnival Fall, the model who stood for the Drink & Draw with START Shows. For their first project together, Mike had her model in the style of Matisse’s ‘Dance.’
Much of Big Mike’s work takes influence from classical art and elements of the renaissance, as he reinterprets pieces in his own vibrant neon style
Much of Big Mike’s work takes influence from classical art and elements of the renaissance, as he reinterprets pieces in his own vibrant neon style. Other classical pieces he’s reinterpreted are ‘The Birth of Venus,’ Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ and Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, which he did in a series with images to various artists. Another definitive element, are 3D aspects he likes to incorporated into the canvases, with mini-sculptures glued on. These multi-dimensional aspects, including highlighting works with black-light paint that not only makes the neon shine but also glow in low-light, are key elements of his work.
In his 6 years of painting, Big Mike has had a bit of a cultural renaissance himself. Thanks to a feature profile in the New York Times, as well as a short documentary by influencer New York Nico titled, ‘Big Mike Takes Lunch’ have helped skyrocket the artist’s career to the point that he now has collectors around the globe. “I got a little famous a little bit because of New York Nico, then everything went viral after that, it was crazy. I sell paintings all around the world. I mail stuff to everywhere, Australia, Europe, crazy, Cypress, I can’t believe it. And I said and a guy in South Africa did a big article about me big Sunday paper and I sent a couple of paintings there. Yeah, so it’s been a crazy journey for me”.
In his 6 years of painting, Big Mike has had a bit of a cultural renaissance himself. Thanks to a feature profile in the New York Times, as well as a short documentary by influencer New York Nico titled, ‘Big Mike Takes Lunch’ have helped skyrocket the artist’s career to the point that he now has collectors around the globe.
And thanks to his long history with Astor Barber’s, that acclaim and artistic panache have taken up residence in the backroom. Despite his newfound success, he has no plans of leaving. “I’m still working and I come here 5 O’clock in the morning and I leave 8 O’clock at night. “
The art has found a home a permanent home in Astor. As now a part-owner of Astor’s, Big Mike also more freedom to put on events like the upcoming ‘Barber Show.’
Sophocles excitement was visible when discussing the show; “there’s going to be a very diverse group of artists in the show and the artists. They’re very talented. So I’m very excited to see the turn out and the whole aesthetic feel of the show when it’s running.” Mike agreed. “I’m super excited, to see all the different art and to meet most of the artists, you know. I never went to school for it… I like to talk to artists and hear their story, so I can understand their work.”
‘The Barber Show’ will take place at Astor Place Hair Stylists, an NYC landmark of 75 years at 2 Astor Place, Manhattan, with an opening on Friday March 31st from 8-11pm and will run until Friday April 28th.
Check out the featured artists in The Barber Show Art Exhibition on Instagram: