How Rob The Original Turns Haircuts Into Viral Portraits of Your Favorite Rappers
Taking 200 or more flights per year and booking $500 haircut appointments isn't a common lifestyle for your typical barber from around the way. However, it's become routine for Rob The Original, a San Antonio-based barber who renders the likenesses of rap superstars into three-dimensional haircut portraits—and goes viral while doing it.
Born Rob Ferrel, the 33-year-old hairstylist most recently caught the internet's attention by shaving an image of J. Cole into the hair of one of his customers. With a near-exact replica of Cole's vaguely crooked smile, dreads and all—it's a piece that helps solidify the artistic barber's spot as an innovator.
"There's plenty of portrait artists, and now it was time to set that bar to another level, so that's when I started doing the 3-D," Rob tells XXL while phoning in from Chicago. "That was my, 'Hey, Rob's still here' [moment]."
While the 3-D portraits have earned him a lot of attention, Rob's been on for a while now. Since becoming a barber 13 years ago, he's become a social media influencer who spends more time at exhibitions than inside of an actual barbershop. With more than 800,000 followers on Instagram, an inventive mind and enough skill to elevate fresh cuts into a viral artform, Rob is set to continue making waves.
XXL spoke with Rob The Original about the process of creating his impeccable art pieces, paying homage to Nipsey Hussle via hair, responses from rappers and how you can get your favorite rapper etched into your own scalp.
XXL: How did you get started as a barber?
Rob The Original: It kinda came out on its own. I wasn't looking to be a barber. I grew up in a big family; I'm the fifth child out of nine. I grew up in Southern California from a Mexican family. We didn't have a lot of [money]. My dad was the only person really bringing in income. When I was 16, I started cutting my own hair because I wanted to look fresh for school. Once I picked up the skill, it was more like a hobby. I never really saw it as, "Ohh, I can make money off this" at all.
Later on, I was 20 and already living in San Antonio. I walked into a barbershop and I happened to be talking to a barber and telling them that I normally cut my own hair. He offered me a job. I was like, "Hell yeah." I have a background as an artist. Shortly after I started barbering in the shop, I started doing the designs on hair. I happened to be a natural and people loved it. Next thing you know, I was super busy. I was like, "Man, I'm gonna go to school for this." I went to school and got legit. I've been barbering ever since. With YouTube and all of that, I posted my stuff and started going viral.
You do a lot of art outside your haircuts. When did you become an artist? Between cutting hair and creating artwork, which came first?
I've been drawing all my life. I'm self-taught, I've never been to art school or anything like that. Once I was getting a pretty strong following, I was like, "Well, why not show people that I also draw?" And I started doing art with other things. I started using sauce, dirty windows, cars. I started using food like tortillas and sauces, avocados, ketchup. I do portraits out of all that stuff. I also use a lot of objects, like clothing, gunpowder, wood stains. My concept is basically doing art out of anything you can think of that is rare. Because I can sit here and do a mural on a wall that's gonna take me weeks to do with paint and it's not going to get the same exposure as if I do art with ketchup on a table that's gonna take me only an hour to do. So I look for content that I can create that's gonna catch people's attention.
When did you first start doing rapper portraits?
I've been doing portraits since 2008. My very first portrait was of Tupac. I was very competitive, and I felt like a lot of people were doing some of the same artwork that I was doing. I wanted to do something like, "They're not gonna be able to top this one." So I did a portrait, and that's how that really started. Over the years, more portrait artists started coming out. It was time to set that bar to another level, so that's when I started doing the 3-D. That was my, "Hey, Rob's still here," you know? [Laughs].
You've done a lot of portraits at this point. Do you have a favorite?
The J. Cole one was pretty cool. Trippie Redd as well. I don't really favor too much of my artwork. If we're not talking about rappers, I did The Last Supper for someone's haircut. That's the one that's gotten the most clout. The J. Cole one was definitely one that I liked a lot. That kid was super stoked. He was happy. Another one that I did in New York recently was Jay-Z. That one was pretty cool because I actually did a bunch of little tiny dreads like his hairstyle.
Have any rappers given you feedback on the portraits?
Snoop [Dogg] has contacted me; they're like, "Hey, wanna do something?" But our schedules haven't matched, and I haven't been to California in a while. Same with Chris Brown and his team. They also wanted to do something. I think it's 'cause Chris Brown does art. I did a FaceTime with DJ Khaled, 'cause I know his barber, too.
How much does a cut from you go for these days?
Whenever I get hired to teach or anything like that—which is most of the time—I charge $3,500. If I do it for someone that flies in and wants to get it, I'll charge like $500 for a portrait. It takes two hours to do. Two or three hours.
Describe the process of designing a rapper's image into someone's hair?
Normally I shave the hair down to level one, one-and-a-half. I feel like you kinda have to be an artist to understand what I'm saying, but it's basically free-handing, you know? Just, starting with a certain area of the portrait. It could be the eyes, the mouth. I don't have any specific area where I start. I kinda just start wherever I feel like it. Once I start carving it, I'm basically holding my phone the whole time and looking at the image while I'm carving into the hair. Lately what I started doing is doing 3-D's—I add extension hair. For example, for the beard on Nipsey [Hussle], I balled it up and kinda knotted it a little bit, so it could be a little curly. It's basically like little sponge balls, but out of hair. I glued them onto his beard. Then I did a couple braids. I glued those with hair glue extensions. Glued them on his hair so it looked like real braids. After I cut the haircut, I touch up certain areas that need to be darkened with eyeliner pencil. Just like women fill in their eyebrows—there's hair there, but they're just filling it in. There's hair on the portrait, but I'm just darkening it so it looks realistic, more like a photo. That's my process.
And you did the Nipsey portrait after his death?
Yeah. I'm a big Nipsey fan. I feel like he was a little more underground because he was a 'hood rapper. I say underground because I feel like a lot of people didn't know who Nipsey was until now. There's a big buzz about him. When he passed I was like, "Oh hell nah, I gotta do a tribute." Because I was there already doing an event. I had to do portraits to do demos on these shows. I was like, "Man, I'ma get this done."
When Nipsey passed away I made a post on my page about him. A lot of people were commenting, "You gotta make a Nipsey portrait." I was already planning it, but people were requesting me to do a Nipsey portrait. The person that got it, she was working at the event. She was a little iffy at first, but I was like, "Come on, this is Nipsey. You not gonna let me put Nipsey on your hair?" When she got it, she was really happy with it. Everybody loved it. She was getting crowds around her, people taking pictures and stuff. It meant a lot to me, too. I was feeling hella inspired. It was a portrait that I wanted to really do. I was jamming out to Nipsey music the whole time.
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