There’s a tiny stretch of A1A in St. Augustine, just south of the Bridge of Lions and north of the Alligator Farm, that can lay claim to some of the Nation’s Oldest City’s most interesting characters.
There are restaurants, food trucks, dive bars, yoga boutiques, gift shops, and even a Transcendental Meditation venue. As one of the new guys on the block, Joe “Rocco” Calabria’s St. Augustine Family Barber shop is no exception.
A New Jersey native who has lived all over the country, Calabria, who goes by Joe Rocco in artistic settings, is an old-school trained barber, musician and rather impressive visual artist. His artwork, a commingling of paintings and drawings, will be on display at Simple Gestures Gallery during First Friday Art Walk on July 3.
“They call me a Renaissance man,” says Rocco from his small, one-man chair barbershop in downtown St. Augustine. “I think of music as color and I think of art as music. They’re interchangeable.”
Over the past few years, Rocco’s played guitar and sung original tunes at open mic nights (Tradewinds Lounge and Scarlett O’Hara’s) and small restaurants like Flavors Eatery and Planet Sarbez. He’s currently working on his first album.
Rocco’s shop, a small, white, stand-alone building that’s both welcoming and easy to miss is littered with vinyl records, acoustic guitars, vintage button-down Hawaiian shirts, paintings (all for sale), and hair-care products (you guessed it, also for sale).
“I didn’t know how I’d be received when I moved here in 2010,” Rocco says, referring to his migration from Louisiana via Virginia via Manhattan via San Francisco. “I have a huge attitude for gratitude for doing what I do.”
And it shows. Rocco is one of those people to whom you’re automatically drawn. He has a bigger-than-life personality (perhaps magnified by the four cups of coffee he admitted to having before our 9:30 a.m. interview). Either way, Rocco is one of those dudes you’ve got to meet in person.
“When I was 20 years old, I stood on the George Washington Bridge holding a sign that said ‘California or Bust’ and hitchhiked my way to San Francisco,” Rocco remembers of leaving the Northeast and New York City for the wild, wild west. “When I got there, I realized that I was a terrible student and eventually found haircutting.”
Now at it for nearly 40 years, Rocco’s time at the chair has proved fascinating. He’s cut hair for the Tony Awards, on movie sets, and photography shoots. He’s even had a chair at the prominent Astor Place Hairstylists in New York City.
“I have more technique than the average cutter,” Rocco says matter-of-factly. “There are three things you need to be a barber: creativity, technique, and technology. It’s not rocket science to be a stylist.”
And like most things in Rocco’s life, he aims to be the best of the best. Take his art, for example. It was 20 years ago that he started teaching himself how to draw and paint. “I’m autodidactic,” he says. “I’m untrained. I’m an intuitive folk artist.”
Rocco’s artwork ranges from chalk drawings of musicians like Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, and The Beatles, to larger paintings of jazz musicians and other interesting characters he observed while living in Louisiana.
There’s also a collection of American flag works and a dog series — and at one time, one of Rocco’s paintings was even used as a wine bottle label. Rocco released a book, Rocco the Hair Guy, in 2010; it features drawings of Rocco attending various hairstyling clients and the “strange things” he’s heard over the years coming from the chair.
The upcoming exhibition at Simple Gestures for First Friday Art Walk will feature 10 pieces but, as Rocco admits, they might not be chosen until the day of the show; most range in price from $25 to $750.
“There’s this quote that I heard as a child, something about the eyes being the windows to the soul,” he says. “I’m more interested in painting faces than flowers. I also like to paint people of color and old faces. I’m such a self-expressive type of person. I’ve always had it in my heart to be an artist.”