In San Miguelito, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Panama, no alley is too narrow, no corner too filthy and no sidewalk too busy to prevent some residents from starting their own street barbería (barber shop).

A makeshift kiosk, a couple of chairs, a good mirror and an electric shaver are all that is needed to create one of these social hubs, in which children, young people or the elderly can have a chat and let the skilled hands of the barber shape their hair into the most trendy of styles.

The most popular haircuts in San Miguelito are the dos tonos con Gillette (a favorite among police officers), el cerquillo, el chaval, el mexicanito and the jersey (inspired by the famous Real Madrid player, Cristiano Ronaldo). For those who want to stand out there is the Pokemony style — hair shaped in the form of a spider, scorpion or dragon. Haircuts are artworks that can be purchased and proudly displayed on customers’ heads for anywhere between $ 1.50 and $ 10. "What I like about this is the art it involves", says Dario González, one of the most renowned street barbers in town.

For most barbers, cutting hair is a life’s mission. Young people between 20 and 30 years old spend years on the job, having started by saving some money to buy their first electric shaver and practicing on the heads of their younger siblings, cousins and neighbors.

In Panama’s street barber business three things are essential. First, make a kiosk that stands out, with strong colorful graffiti that will attract the attention of customers. Second, give it a memorable name: Papa Chan, Capital Site or Los Reyes de Pulido are some of the more inventive names of these rickety boutiques. Third, have a steady hand to make neat cuts. This will help keep the customers happy and allow the barber to gain a reputation as one of the best in the business.

There are no health and safety regulations, no standard procedures to follow. But remember: a bad haircut might damage the client’s image for a while but it will damage the barber’s reputation for far longer.

Barbershops present passersby and customers alike with a chance to pause from the turbulent life on the streets of Panama’s slums — what better way to take a break than chat with neighbors about politics or the last episode of soap opera while a gentle hand slides a shaver over your head.


Pictures: Carlos Jasso / Reuters