Last month while walking down Queens Road in Peckham, South London, I was happily surprised to encounter DKUK, a hair salon like no others. Established in 2014, DKUK is a hair salon with no mirrors that offers haircuts and colour in front of art. Whether you need a haircut or just want to see some art, the salon welcomes everyone, all hair types and lengths.
With a rich programme of exhibitions, events and hairdressing trainings for artists, DKUK is a great new model for supporting artistic practices and making contemporary art more accessible. I spoke to Daniel Kelly, artist/hairdresser and funder of DKUK and Lucy Cowling, exhibitions programme manager at the salon to find out more.

by Valentina Orrù

DKUK offers anyone coming to the salon a unique experience of looking at contemporary art while having a haircut. So, all your customers are also audiences of the artistic programme. Can you tell me more about your idea of experience?

DKUK offers a very sustained, long engagement with an art work, which is a completely different viewing experience to how most people look at art in a museum or gallery. Apparently the average person spends about double the time reading a label accompanying a work to actually looking at the piece, so it really can just be a sweeping glance.
If you are a customer sat in front of a piece, you will be there anywhere between 45 mins and 3 hours, depending on if you are in for a cut or colour. You also less than a metre away, so you really are face-to-face. It for instance dictates that we can’t show video on screens larger than 32” as any bigger at that distance drives your perception a little crazy! This slowed down, close-up looking is what creates the completely different relationship between viewer and artwork.

2019 Sadé Mica, Now What
Sadé Mica, Now What, 2019. Image: Alex Rimmer.

Let’s talk about your exhibition and event programme – how do you usually work with artists? How important is for them – and their practices, the ‘experience’ aspect we’ve been talking about?

In addition to the art team going to the artist’s studio, we also always try and bring the artist into the salon to watch the goings-on and take the flow of people into account. No space for showing art is truly neutral and DKUK definitely isn’t so it is important that artists take this into account. Aspects we for instance encourage, but by no means dictate, is that there is something on offer for those waiting for their appointment or for their toner to develop. This has happened by artists contributing a reading list to our magazine shelf that offers context to their practice or having longer form videos on offer on an iPad.
Despite some guidelines in terms of what works, DKUK does not present very big limitations on the type of work we can show; we are open to any medium and try and support however artists want to challenge the space and people’s perceptions. Alongside a fair amount of 2D and 3D media we’ve shown sound pieces, performance and are now working with Theo Turpin, who is creating a book of co-authored short stories. Sam Jacob’s exhibition saw all the hairdressing chairs being placed around a big architects table, so clients were now looking at each other as well as the art.

2019 Sam Jacob, Museum Show
Sam Jacob, Museum Show, 2019. Image: Alex Rimmer.
2019_20 Puck Verkade, Plague Deconstructed 2
Puck Verkade, Plague Deconstructed, 2019/20. Image: Alex Rimmer.

How would you describe a typical day at DKUK?

Quite long! We are open from 10am-8pm most days, so our stylists and colour technician are on their feet a lot. This means we value looking after each other, for instance whenever there is time cooking lunch and sitting down together. Every Friday morning there is a full staff meeting, which are great for everyone checking in with progress so that everyone is aware of how the artistic programme is developing, how the Hair Apprentice training is going etc etc.

DKUK 2 by Sam Jacob Studio. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2019
DKUK. Courtesy DKUK. Image: Jim Stephenson.

Artists often have financially precarious practices and sustain themselves through other jobs, which can be either in the artistic field or sometimes not. DKUK presents a model that supports artists and look at the transferability of creative skills – for example you have been training artists to become artist-hairdressers. How do artists think of hairdressing in relation to their artistic practices, is it a part of them?

We have currently had three artists go through the training programme, and for two of them hairdressing was always a career option they considered anyway. For one, Jasmine, this also resulted in an arts practice that used hair and beauty to challenge ideals of femininity or masculinity. The art Idi made and makes on the other hand did not reflect this directly in its content or form, but it is an important part of her being. Lastly, Lowri had not previously considered hairdressing as a serious career option but was interested in learning new hands-on skills, which is also core to her arts practice.

2019 Sadé Mica, Now What-2
Sadé Mica, Now What, 2019. Image: Alex Rimmer.
2019 John Walter, Brexit Gothic
John Walter, Brexit Gothic, 2019. Image: Alex Rimmer.

Talking about the idea of making a comfortable space for artist and anybody to enjoy and chat about art… another great component of DKUK is your podcast series. What are your ideas behind it?

The podcast exists to demystify and discuss what it means to be a creative practitioners living and working in London. So this could be in terms of how to survive, develop and grow, but also research interests for their practice or day-job, related back to daily life. In a way, it reflects a lot of the types of conversations that already happen in the salon between stylists and clients.

DKUK 2 by Sam Jacob Studio. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2019
DKUK. Courtesy DKUK. Image: Jim Stephenson.

As for the business model, DKUK went from being an art project to a business, it’s now a limited company. Would you call it an ‘art-business’?

We say we are not a salon and not a gallery, and not even really a hybrid of both, rather creating something different altogether. We have started referring to the space DKUK inhabits as a studio to more aptly reflect the different types of artistic labour that happen within the walls. Business management is also very central to the activity; every DKUK employee using management tools and software, is aware of takings and KPIs and is involved in developing the business’ long-term goals. So in that sense, yes, it could be described as an ‘art-business’; we look to incorporate the benefits of artistic training and a way of seeing the world into what constitutes a ‘proper’ business.

What are your 3 top tips for an artist who is looking to set up their own business?

  1. Be realistic; set up a business plan and goals, broken down backwards to small steps.
  2. Define what makes you unique.
  3. Have fun with it!
John Walter, Brexit Gothic installation view. Courtesy DKUK, credit Alex Rimmer HO2B3153
John Walter, Brexit Gothic installation view. Courtesy DKUK. Image: Alex Rimmer

Finally, do you have anything on the pipeline? Any plans to open a second DKUK branch?

Multiple DKUK’s are not in the air yet. But we are hoping to be able to expand the training programme to grow into a ‘DKUK Academy’.
What we have cooking in the short-term is a bigger focus on our own creative output. This will include working with artists to develop a series of styled hair looks incorporating different artistic media, with a DKUK Annual Collection Show art directed by the entire staff opening in mid May.
Also new for 2020 is that we are now offering ‘talk-free’ haircuts. We have noticed that a lot of clients come specifically due to the lack of mirrors around the place being more relaxing, so we have started to think of all the ways we can be more inclusive and potentially reduce anxiety.


Current exhibition:
Kara ChinSubsequent Hotchpotch, until 14 March 2020
Follow DKUK here.

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