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The Phnom Penh look: a trip through hairdressing history

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Just 10 years ago, hand-painted signs like this were commonplace as adverts for Cambodian hair salons. Photograph supplied

If there was a signature “look” to be discerned from the eccentric exhibition of Phnom Penh’s painted hairdresser signs opening at Java today, it would be a pale-skinned beauty with a swirling black bouffant, pink lips drawn into a coy smile over her shoulder.

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An uncanny take on David Beckham: the signs sometimes depicted men as a well as women. Photo Supplied

“The reason I took these pictures is not because I have a great fascination with hairdressers but because I like series of things,” says Australian Jim Tulloch, who between 2002 and 2005 photographed classic signage in the city.

“They were often oddly juxtaposed. Look at this one,” he says, bringing up an image on his laptop of a sign with a gaily painted beauty beside a greasy tyre-repair shop.

“The other thing I find interesting is that they are at all levels of artistic talent. Some of them are like, ‘You, too, can look like this!’ Some of them are brush-painted and some are airbrushed.”

If three years seems an excessive time to commit to documenting the fading art of hairdressers’ signs, Tulloch had more serious reasons for being in Cambodia.

As country director of the World Health Organisation, he led a hectic schedule overseeing health programs all over the Kingdom.

In his spare minutes, he’d take his camera on walks around Phnom Penh’s streets.

An affection for old advertisements got Tulloch interested in the wonky kitsch of hairdresser art, the acrylic hair-and-make-up portraits painted on metal signboards, proudly displaying the services within — which, a decade ago, were ubiquitous.

Today, his photographs go on display at Java cafe and gallery as part of The Phnom Penh Look, a quirky retrospective of an art form that has now given way to digital shopfront images of pixellated models and unofficial celebrity endorsers.

The painted ladies have also inspired their own fashion accessories from Friends International, which has made bags, earrings and postcards from the images.

The accessories are for sale, along with Tulloch’s photographs, at tonight’s opening, with all profits going to Friends International.

As well as different eras and fashions, the collection fondly documents the individual flourishes and foreshortening dilemmas of the artists, including four images of the same woman tackled by four different sign painters.

“I could spot the same image around town,” Tulloch muses. “To be quite honest, though, I was a bit embarrassed to be taking pictures of hairdresser signs.

“I like hand-painted advertising, but then I realised that by far the best option for a series was hairdressers’ signs — just for the sheer number.”

The pictures have now officially been elevated into retro, says Sabine Valens, the marketing and business officer at Friends International.

“It was everywhere in Phnom Penh 10 years ago and it’s progressively disappearing . . . but the idea is that this retro, vintage look is trendy right now.”

Tulloch is equally interested in capturing the small-scale aspects of Phnom Penh’s continuing transformation.

“It’s good to document things as they go away, particularly as things are changing so fast.

“In a way, this is a link between the past and the future, because these (photographs) are all digital images.”

These days, Tulloch lives and works in Colombia, but still visits Phnom Penh to see his son and grand-daughter.

Has he found similar colourful inspiration in the signs of South America? “I have an idea for a project that works with images of the ’60s and ’70s to do with the music industry,” he says. “I live in Cali, which is the capital of salsa.”

The Phnom Penh Look is at Java from today until December 9.

Visitors to tonight’s exhibition opening are asked to dress in their own ‘‘Phnom Penh look”.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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