Слава Україні!——Glory to Ukraine!

It is difficult to
be alone and with someone


You will only learn how strong you are when you are in a relationship.

Words by Agnes Klein

Photography by Pēteris Vīksna

The following story was originally published in Benji Knewman 5.


When a common acquaintance suggests that I should interview Vlad, as he is known to everyone, I don’t object. He is a hairdresser, after all. I used to have one that I saw more often than my hair required – simply to talk about life. I used to call him and say: hey, you know, the colour is still okay, but I need to talk. Something is there. Something liberating. You sit there and look the person who is tending to your head straight in the eye; you may see him for the first time in your life and you barely notice how you’ve already told him half of your life story in visual detail and audial etudes. It doesn’t even matter what he would do with this information – as if hairdressers too have given a kind of Hippocratic oath.

But this time I am interested in Vlads’s life. Once I was told that you can best get to know a person while cooking together. I am sure that it is best to talk to a hairdresser while he is washing your hair. I turn out to be right. And the noise of the hairdryer in the recorder will later feel completely insignificant.

What are you listening to? British radio?

American. It’s my latest favorite program, New York radio WNYC. It’s called “New Sounds”.

About young performers?

Young and old. About the old who are influencing the young. Almost every day, there is a new program on everything that’s new in electronic music. Also on acoustic music – violins, the organ, bagpipes. The director of the program, John Schaefer, has put it all in an archive. I looked to see when he had his oldest program – it was in 1986. So now he has done almost 4000 programs. And he is still doing it all! I compared it with 1986 – his voice has changed a little.

Do you listen every day?

Not quite. Mostly at work. I also have a few programs from BBC 3 Late Junction, which I have been listening to for several years. There is a mixture of different styles – baroque, folk music, the Latvian Radio choir.

What were you doing in 1986 when John Schaefer launched his program?

I have thought about that. I would have been sitting in my room in Vecmīlgrāvis and throwing a ball against the wall. I still managed to ask my mother about it when she was still alive. My friends once were reminiscing about their crazy youth – how they lived it up in the clubs in Riga’s city centre. But I could not remember what I did up to the age of 18. So I asked my mom – what was my childhood like? “Yes, you really did sit in your room,” she said “You drew, painted or just threw a ball against the wall.” That I remember. Rather autistic.

One time I was in Mežaparks and decided to ride my bike to the place where there was an amusement park. I rode and had a kind of masochistic feeling in my heart, sadness, for that’s where I spent my childhood. Alone or with some friends. I tried to remember what the source of that sadness was. I did not have a traumatic childhood, but I have this thick fog in my head about it. I probably lived in my own world. I threw a ball against the wall and listened to the radio. The Cocteau Twins was the first band that put me in ecstasy.

I didn’t know that there even was such music. I had no acquaintances or friends who could recommend anything to me in music or to teach me. I did it all myself.

Your Latvian is very good.

At school, I was the best in class both in German and Latvian. At High School No. 46 in Vecmīlgrāvis it was not difficult to be the best student. My oldest friends still laugh at me that once I spoke English better than Latvian. I was 23 or 24 when my independent life began. I began to show up in the centre, I made friends and acquaintances and I began speaking Latvian. Now I can’t believe that there was a time when my Latvian was worse than my English.

Is it the other way round now?

Yes. Now I sometimes catch myself that I have to think about how to say this or that Russian word right. I have made my peace with it. Just like I have made my peace that I speak with an accent. I am often asked about it – in Latvian, Russian and English. In all these, I have my own individual accent.

My English teacher from Canada said that one should not be embarrassed by one’s accent: it is a sign of individuality. A plus and not a minus.

Yes, with time, I have understood it completely. I feel it very deeply. Everyone has a right to his or her accent. Just recently I chanced upon Bjork’s CD at home. It was one of her old albums, I don’t remember the title. I put it on, which I had not done in a long time – I haven’t really liked Bjork for some time now. I listened to a song that had these lyrics: “Raise your own flag, make your own steps, protect your language.” I felt that it was a really great song, completely in line with my reflections. It is the same with some books. You read and then you think: really cool that someone is thinking just like me! You are not alone.

Bjork is right: everyone has to find their own flag, their own inner support, own world. It is not bad at all; it is really the best thing.

Sometimes people of great personality with their own established world meet and try to be together.

It is difficult. I don’t remember which writer it was, but she said: “If I am red and my other person is blue, then I would not want either of us to turn purple with time.” It is very important not to turn purple.

How do you co-exist?

It is a great test for whether or not you indeed have a great personality. The more confident in yourself you are, the easier it probably is to give something up. If you are strong, then you can accept another viewpoint and a different person next to yourself. Of course it’s difficult if the viewpoints are very different. One of the ways is for two to become opponents and begin to argue, which is an opportunity to launch a very interesting communication through which you can discover many things about which you did not know before. It takes place through people who have a very different way of thinking from your own. Actually, I often think about two strong personalities together.

To be together with someone is difficult, and times also change.

It is difficult to be alone and with someone.

For me, it’s still a big question. I look at others and I get that there are cases where it’s possible. It is difficult to say what sacrifices it takes, but it does take sacrifices. You can’t just not give anything to the other person, then it would all be one-sided. It would mean using each other. You must learn not to be afraid to lose yourself if you are really strong. Yet you will only learn how strong you are when you are in a relationship. In a relationship, you learn so much about yourself – and not about the other person. Sometimes you learn things that you don’t want to accept regarding yourself. As for me, it’s hard to admit but I’d rather be alone. A happy family with children and a dog – that classical model – is not mandatory. It has been impressed upon us from our childhood, although it is beginning to change. A partnership is very important in order to learn a lot about oneself. They give the opportunity to become even better.

When you are in a relationship, it’s as if you were looking at yourself in the mirror.

The so-called mirroring is very dangerous. Once in my life I had to deal with it and I had a feeling that I could lose myself in all of that. It was horrifying, because when you lose yourself you are well on the way of losing your friends and all the good that you possess. For the way you are – with your love, quirks and bullshit – you are exactly the individual whom your friends respect. Sometimes I have to remind both myself and some of my friends who do not know what they should do in some situation so that in the end all would be well. I don’t remember anyone who at the moment of their birth would have signed a promise to be successful, happy or super wonderful. If you think about it, there’s all this freedom. Only recently, thanks to movies and books, I began to appreciate the so-called losers who often are the right kind of fantastic people. It is a luxury to call yourself a loser in this world of successful people. You are the way you are and you don’t have to prove to anyone that you are super cool. That is freedom that allows one to achieve much more, because you are not in a state of stress. What will be will be. That kind of a condition is fantastic. If only there’d be more such moments of freedom.

How close are you to such freedom?

I am trying to get closer to it day by day. Sometimes it is one step forward and two back. Overall, it is becoming easier for me to live.

It does not happen often that I remember upon waking what I have dreamt, but last night I had a dream that very high up in some building me and two other people had to light a lighthouse. But I am terribly afraid of heights! I would never do something like that in real life. In the dream, I am horrified but I climb up that construction and light the lantern. The two guys who are with me I see way down below me. I walk down to some lobby and I realize that I am in the North – in Norway, Russia or some other place. But I had such a happy feeling that I had done that thing. I woke up satisfied that I had lit that lantern despite my fear of heights. The sun was shining and my dog wanted to play.

I was playing with the dog and musing: what does it matter if it is a working day or a holiday. And then suddenly I felt really sad because I understood that I will never have such a morning as this. There will come a time when I will have no dog, no sunshine, nothing, nothing. Such sadness allows you to appreciate every given moment. You understand that you should get in the car and go take care of business, but the sadness stays with you. I think that we can find a way of accessing our mind somewhere deep down there, to get inside it because it is not in some unknown place, it is here (points at his chest).

There was a time when I was alone in Berlin for eight days – a rare occurrence. It was in the fall; I was walking through the leaves that were up to my knees because they don’t get rid of them. On the last day, I finally began to communicate with myself.

I walked and talked to myself, just walked through the park talking to myself. That same guy who was throwing a ball against the wall. It is not somewhere, some time – it is now. It is yourself. You have to meet yourself and give yourself a hug and tell yourself that everything is okay and nothing has been lost.

Do you often feel like going somewhere all alone?

It is one of the best opportunities to meet myself. I am really interesting company to myself. I was really surprised that I am not bored in my own company. A year ago, I was in India with a friend. He was about to have another baby, I think the fourth one and he said that he would never have this opportunity again. He also said that I was the only person with whom he wanted to go. But I really did not want to go to India. It was the last place in the world that I wanted to visit but I understood that I had to save him for it would be crazy to go to India alone. I returned and understood that I could easily go back and travel alone. I would meet both myself and my friends. Everyone. But one must travel alone anywhere, even to India. But basically I am a very outgoing person and I need to see others from time to time. I guess, just like everyone else.

I hear that you became a hairdresser by accident.

Up to the age of 25 I searched for myself, which meant that my parents supported me. At the age of 25, I decided to go and study at an art school in Sweden. An acquaintance looked at my work and said that it was very good but I would need to learn Swedish. I went to the Nordic Information Bureau in Bastejkalns where you had to pay for each lesson. My parents gave me the money. But it was the period where I began to have fun in the Old Town. Some friends appeared and I began to use the money for other things. So no Swedish ever happened. I decided that I should go to Germany. I returned with all kinds of plans and illusions, but I hadn’t done a thing to carry it all out. I got an offer to go to Iceland – to work at a farm for a month and then travel for a couple of months. Iceland was my dream land and I turned to my parents with this wonderful offer – asking them to pay the airfare. But at that point they said stop. They said they no longer wanted to support my super plans; what of my future? wasn’t I already too old for this? By a fateful coincidence, an acquaintance of mine knew people in a hairdresser’s salon with good masters and they were looking for an apprentice. I considered it for a few minutes – well, it was something creative and almost an artisan’s work, so I could tell my parents that I had found something serious. In fact, I thought it would just be something to tell them, but look how everything turned out. Energy is also a factor. So I became a hairdresser. Quite accidentally.

So you have not attended any hairdressing school?

No. I was an apprentice, like in the old days.

And you were never afraid that you could screw it all up?

In the beginning I was afraid, because I had to work with people and not some inanimate matter. It is important for the client to be satisfied. True, these days I don’t worry about it so much. Very rarely, but sometimes it happens that new clients come in about whom you see right away that they are whimsical. They begin with the text: Please help me, you are my only hope. No one else has been able to help me! Then I know that it’s all going to turn out badly. If there has been no one else, then I too won’t be able to help.

Then I turn inward and say to myself that I will do the maximum, as best as I can. Then nothing depends on you anymore. You are safe. And it helps.

We, hairdressers are psychologists, but we are not psychiatrists. There are clients who sit down in the chair and proudly announce that they have a phobia, fear of hairdressers. What should I do with that information? I tell them that I do not work with phobias. It’s not my specialty. I work with hair. If it’s not just a claim for claim’s sake, a phobia is a serious matter. And even if it’s just an empty claim, I cannot do anything. I will do the maximum that I can. And that’s all. It is easy to work with such an awareness.

Did you look long before you decided to open your salon on Miera Street?

It was also a fateful coincidence. I used to fantasize that someday I will have my own place. Working with wonderful hairdressers who kept listening to Radio Skonto, I was slowly losing my mind. And then one day Kristaps Epners said that he has a space that is being vacated. I looked at it and saw that it was in terrible condition. Previously it had been a glazier’s shop – also artisans, like me. Glass, mirrors… I realized that I don’t understand anything. I asked my friends, interior designers, to tell me if anything could be done here professionally. They said that it could. What remained was such an unimportant thing as money. Agnese, one of the designers, offered to lend it to me, but as for workers, they did not have them; they were busy at another site. That same day my mum calls and says that my cousin had called her – unexpectedly, for he usually does not call her – and said that he had a crew of workers who could do renovations and that they were looking for work! Within a week, I had space, designers, money and workers. In two months, everything was ready.

I did not have to control anything, I trusted everyone. In the meantime, I went to England to study with Vidal Sassoon. After that I went to Brighton for a couple of days. It was so bright and nice there. I began to think that I would have to return to Riga where there is that renovation taking place, where I would have my own salon. Terrible, horrifying! I will not return, I’ll stay here.

Now everyone knows you in Riga Vlads, Knābis!

I guess. The register is rather full.

Why do people return to you?

I have been told that I cut the hair and two weeks later it looks even better than right after it was cut. I don’t know why they come back. I work as I do. Maybe they like that they don’t have to tell me much what to do. I had a client yesterday who had come to Riga from The Netherlands. The last time I cut his hair six months ago, so now it was really long. We began to talk, I told him that I was learning to play the piano and it turned out that so was he. Both of us of the same age, two little dummies, beginning to learn the piano! Ten minutes into it he says: hey, you are cutting but we didn’t even talk about it! I replied that I didn’t want to cut much and leave it long. And he had wanted to tell me that he had such long hair for the first time in his life and that I should just trim the ends and give it some shape and let it go on growing. I was doing just that – automatically!

How long have you had Knābis?

Seven years.

Did you know right away that you would have art on the walls?

First, the idea was about a reading room, a library, so that people would come here to have a good time in a cozy atmosphere. Arturs Bērziņš had a few exhibitions, then my friend Reinis Virtmanis did. I did not plan anything, everything happened by itself. I am not a gallerist and I don’t have a gallery here, I have to respect the space and its possibilities. The client sits here at least an hour and a very intense communication with the art works on exhibit takes place – very rarely does one look at one and the same painting for such a long time.

Whereas here you are forced to look at the painting you see in the mirror.

And then these texts begin! Many of my clients go to exhibitions, various cultural venues, art galleries and so on, but there are also those who do not. It is they whose opinion is most interesting. Like about Pēteris Līdaka whose works are here now – the opinions have been very contradictory. Some are shocked: Jesus, what’s that? Did a child draw this? Then some say that judging by composition and the choice of colours, it is a guy who is already experienced. I am very interested in people’s reactions, and that’s why I began to pay attention to what kind of work ends up here. Until the end of the summer, I will have Pēteris, in the fall I have other artists planned.

Reinis Virtmanis had a series of 12 works. And my gallerist dream came true: a collector had had a talk with himself and decided to purchase the entire series. To me it was – wow! It really made me happy.

Did you take a commission?

The artist is my friend and gave me a very beautiful art book for my mediation. He also mentioned a commission, but I said that maybe later. Given the situation with art in Latvia, I was pleased that my commission was an art album.

My salon is a specific place for art. People have the opportunity to take a longer look at the exhibited works and they may get a desire to take them home with themselves.

It is not a brief moment at a gallery. Here it is also easier to picture the work in an interior. Reinis too, who has serious works hanging in galleries wanted this place – the feeling is like at home, yet it is a public space. The work of the previous artist that was facing the mirror was bought.

Yes, I see the painting behind my back all the time.

When last week Pēteris was hanging his works, he asked if it would be okay if this red one hung here in the background. I said that it would be cool because then the clients would not go to sleep.

They fall asleep regularly?

Yes, the ones with whom I don’t talk. Sometimes there are clients with whom I really talk it out! I have the scissors and the comb in my hands, I am gesturing and talking and then the client says, sorry, Vlad, I have to go. When I don’t have to talk, it’s also nice – I can work and meditate. For work, it’s better not to talk, but this profession has its nuances and its advantages.

Do you go home by bike or by car?

Unfortunately by car, because my Rasta is old already, he can’t keep up with me.

What are you thinking as you lock the door and go home?

Very often, as I am locking the door, I say: “Thank you very much, Beak, that you let me endure this day and make a living.” I realise that it is not just me working on this space but the space is working on me. Then I thank it. Only sitting down at home I realise how tired I am. Sometimes after a long week and many people, I feel so empty but at the same time I have a feeling that I still want to do so much. It will soon be eleven o’clock at night, but I would still like to walk the dog, read a book, make dinner and watch something. There is so much I want! But all I manage is to walk the dog, stretch out and read half a page.

And why is it called Melnais knābis – “The Black Beak”?

I was in Edinburgh, walking in these streets in the centre that take you to the castle. A real Harry Potter. And then I imagined, if I had a pub with these small-pane windows, I would call it “The Black Beak” and it would be a gate to another reality. I got this thought and chuckled to myself about it. A year passed and I was offered this space. I had to deal with the documents and give the new place a name. But I had no ideas at all. And then I had an elf run out of my head and said – hey, it’s the Black Beak! Only for some reason it’s not a pub but a hairdresser’s salon.

But it’s definitely a gate to another reality.

Yes, it is. When my mom first came to look at this place, she almost walked into that mirror. She was absolutely convinced that one could enter there.

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