At Sharon’s Place of Beauty the women sitting in plastic caps under cone-shaped hair dryers occasionally peek over the tops of their magazines to take in the scene. The salon’s decorations are unremarkable: a few mirrors, a handwritten “customers only” notice posted above the pay phone, and a brown sign with gold lettering that reads “We Are Beauticians Not Magicians.” But packed in around the lemon yellow barber’s chairs are teenage boys, smoking cigarettes and talking noisily. They don’t even seem to have much hair. But the stylist they’re waiting for a turn with, the owner’s 16-year-old son Dupree, doesn’t need much to work with.

Dupree Hamilton, a Lincoln Park High School sophomore, has been working at his mother’s Oak Street shop for almost a year. When young men walk into the shop and say, “Hey Dupree, hook me up,” they’re giving him carte blanche to go at them with his electric clippers, and they never know what they’ll look like walking out.

On Thursdays and Fridays after school and all day Saturdays, Dupree makes art on their heads, clipping pictures or messages into their hair. Unless a customer makes a request, Dupree says, he never knows what he’ll do until he’s doing it. Except for a tropical scene Dupree calls “Paradise,” which he’s done three times, the designs are always “fresh.” “Whatever I got on my mind” is what he says appears on his clients’ heads.

Some things he’s had on his mind lately have been the Chicago skyline, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, “Paradise”–water, a palm tree, a sunset, and birds–and an assortment of ruminations in capital block letters including “It Ain’t Shit,” “Studio Gangstas,” “Here Come da Lords,” “Ain’t No Love,” “No Gin, No Juice,” and “You Got the Flavor.”

The images wrap around the curve of his clients’ skulls and bear resemblance to enigmatic earthworks or landscape designs seen from the air.

After securing a barber’s cape on a client, Dupree perches his left hand firmly on top of his victim’s head and, with the clippers whirring monotonously in his right hand, he begins to draw. He stops periodically to sweep a toothbrush over loose hairs stuck in the blade or to hike up his baggy jeans, which ride so low he sometimes has to keep the waistband from joining the ripples of denim already bunched around his ankles. Occasionally he briefly ditches a client in mid-cut to greet a friend sitting outside in an idling car.

Dupree’s designs are often influenced by songs, graffiti, and even advertisements. He has no qualms about using a head to promote a product. He does it with his own. After a two-month hiatus–he ended up sporting an inch-long Afro–Dupree again bears the Adidas logo in his hair. A friend did the honors.

“It’s about time you got a haircut to look like a decent human being, ‘stead of with that fro,” a regular client playfully taunted, seeing Dupree for the first time since his comeback.

Dupree is particularly attached to Adidas. “Their shoes are better made,” he says as emphatically as a polished spokesperson. “They last longer.” He scoffs at the competition–“Nike’s just to look good. They’re not quality.” And he pledges allegiance to a group of friends called the Three Stripe Posse. In addition to the tribute in his hair, Dupree wears the three-striped gym shoes, a custom-made ring with the company logo, and a gilded earring that is supposed to be the shape of a marijuana leaf but looks like the company logo.

Dupree recently chided a cousin who had come to the shop to sell cologne: “You ain’t got on no three-stripe.” His cousin quickly unzipped his coat and pulled up his sweater, redeeming himself by revealing a red Adidas shirt. Satisfied, Dupree bought a five-dollar vial of Red Egyptian Musk.

Dupree estimates that he has around 20 regulars who pay him $15 each week for a design that is quickly covered by in-growing hair. Since he doesn’t usually schedule appointments, he often has several clients waiting. “Sometimes when I’m real busy I challenge myself, like one Saturday when the line was out the door.” He prides himself on once having accomplished a “fade”–a subtle shading like a charcoal sketch–in two minutes and 48 seconds. “The more people you get out of the way, the more you make,” Dupree reasons.

His customers come from all over the Chicago area, even the suburbs, though the majority probably come from Cabrini-Green, which borders Sharon’s to the west. Dupree moved away from Cabrini-Green when he was ten years old, but he still spends a lot of time there hanging with his Three Stripe friends. Sometimes Dupree stays until the early morning hours and then catches a cab home to Bucktown, where he lives with his mother.

Sharon Hamilton worked at the shop for almost eight years before she inherited it from her former boss. Dupree had been working on his friends’ heads, so she invited him to use the space. It has been something of an adjustment having his mostly teenage clientele around.

“Their hormones affect their attitude sometimes,” she says. She often has to remind Dupree: “I understand you’re 16, but you got to watch what you say. This is a gossiping place.” Dupree says he asks his friends to tone down their language and edit their stories a bit, though he admits he’s unsure about what exactly might be considered inappropriate shop talk. “My mom tells me don’t talk about girls and stuff when I’m around elder ladies. I might say the wrong thing.” What might that be? “I don’t know.”

Dupree hopes to attend beauty school after he graduates. And he sees himself with his own shop someday, which he has mapped out in much more detail than any of the hair designs he currently creates. He says he would call his shop Chocolate Thunder–a name borrowed from lyrics by Ice Cube. He imagines that his shop would have a black, turquoise, purple, and white color scheme; that a wall of glass window blocks would line the stairway near the entrance; that the ceiling would be mirrored; that the chairs would be black leather; and that there would be no room for the sign disavowing magic that currently hangs in his mother’s shop.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lloyd DeGrane.