Rapper Killer Mike added a new bullet point to his resume late last year – Barber Shop Owner, alongside his wife and business partner Shana Render. The two acquired and completely reworked a barbershop in Atlanta, Georgia. Enter Graffitis SWAG, the hottest new Atlanta barbershop opened on Nov. 1, 2011. Killer Mike said that a long time ago, a man told him horror stories and advised him not to open a shop. That voice in his head held him back from opening his own barbershop for nine years. It took Render telling him, “Do it now while you have the money,” for him to take the next step and finally pursue the lifelong dream. They named the barbershop “Graffitis SWAG” – the newly coined term stands for “Shave, Wash and Groom.”
“You become a walking piece of art,” he said. “I do hip hop professionally and graffiti is well-known in hip hop. When you go into the barber shop and get this great customer service, you walk out as physical graffiti.”
His hometown of Atlanta was the perfect choice to open his first barbershop to positively influence the African American community, he said, because “Atlanta is a Black city. I’ve never known a white mayor or a white police chief. It’s all Black men.” Killer Mike is from the Adamsville community. He hopes that Graffitis SWAG shops will become the premier barbering brand in the African American community, with a goal of opening 150 shops across the country over time. He aspires to expand the Graffitis SWAG brand into cities like Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta, New York City, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Dallas, Oklahoma City and anywhere else there is a large Black community.
“I grew up in the African American community in the barbershop,” Killer Mike said. “That’s where we learned basic manhood lessons – everything from what to do on dates with girls and how to tie a tie, to who the Black community is going to vote for.”
Killer Mike sees this barbershop as an opportunity to lift up men in the community who are out of work and help move them toward sustainable, lifelong careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.4% of the adult male population is currently unemployed. The same source shows that adult Black or African American men have a hugely disproportionate 13.6% unemployment rate.
“I want to see young African American men employed, without having to continue to beg people for employment,” he said. “I want to see barbers earning disposable income, treating it like a regular salaried job, and I want to see them invest in other things – real estate, a cause, whatever. I want them to have an opportunity for real economic elevation.”
He says his goal is to train these barbers to step out to bigger and better things – but within his vision and growth plan for Graffitis SWAG. Should the barbers step out to do their own thing or grow elsewhere, he says he understands and he supports it, but his real goal is to help empower these men to become leaders within his own organization. As he acquires and opens more barbershops, more leadership and management positions will become available and he hopes to “promote from within.” He wants his current hires to grow to take over and run the new shops, take on their own apprentices and continue to grow the brand throughout the nation. The next shop he opens should be managed by someone who comes from the first Graffitis SWAG shop, he says.
“One thing black men have always been able to do is a service job like barbering,” Killer Mike said. “Barbering is a way for young men to control their schedule, control the amount of money they make, and grab life by the horns, without depending on anyone to pay them. It’s about learning how to be a businessman and budget and count your money.”
He added that becoming a business owner helped him understand just how serious barber licensing is because of the hazards and health risks that come with beauty professions, as well as the importance of learning the traditional and modern skills of the trade. He keeps up with the extensive rules and regulations in the barber industry and says he takes the licensing process much more seriously now that he owns his own barbershop.
He says he views trained barbers on the same level as he does doctors and dentists (which, by the way, relates closely to the origin of barbering). He said that getting licensed is what sets inexperienced “haircutters” apart from legitimate barbers. He defined a haircutter as, “what my cousin did when he was 16 before he got his license” – using clippers, and maybe a razor. But to be a real barber, he said, is to know how to care for both the customers’ appearance and the health of their hair and skin.
“If you’re cutting hair right now for money and don’t have your license, go get your license,” he emphasized. “It makes it easier for a business owner to help you. I absolutely mean that. If a guy’s licensed, I can literally put him behind a chair working that day. Without a license, he becomes a tumultuous headache who puts the shop at odds with the state board.”
He continued, “I want these guys to take themselves seriously. Guys with barber licenses look at barbering more like a profession, and less like a hustle or a gig.”
While Killer Mike actively contributes to the shop and communicates with Render daily, she currently manages the business end of the shop, especially while Killer Mike is on tour supporting his new album release, R.A.P. Music, (that’s “Rebellious African People” Music). Render ensures that all the booth renters are supported and well-managed, and preserves the caliber and integrity of the Graffitis SWAG brand.
“Shana is the boss,” Killer Mike said with a laugh. “She’s a tough-as-nails boss and she don’t play. She’s a vicious mama bear. She’s definitely the bad cop in the Good Cop / Bad Cop scenario. She does a good job of handling the business.”
Killer Mike said that, like any entrepreneur, his first goal to accomplish is making money in a profitable barbering business. But in the larger sense, he says, the African American community “deserves better caliber shops than are currently out there.” Over the years, he said, he has felt the quality and respectability of the barbering business decline. He hopes that by opening barbershops he can turn the business around by emphasizing the traits of traditional Black barbershops – an environment with excellent customer service and one that’s in touch with the people in the community.
The pair hopes to open their next shop in the Atlanta area by December, making it the second barbershop they opened in a year time span. They have aggressive goals of opening their own barber product line, as well. Killer Mike also says he is actively hiring new booth renters to occupy Graffitis SWAG, and is on the search for a barbershop manager with the right credentials and drive to succeed. Currently the barbershop staffs four barbers and two more on the way, and they will add four to six more licensed barbers to the team.
The key staff of the shop, including Community Liaison and Marketing Consultant G.G. McGee, plans to get their barber licenses, too. Even Killer Mike plans to walk the talk and get his own barber license. He hopes to begin barbering classes in the Atlanta area this winter, and has already begun searching for the right barber school.
Despite Killer Mike’s rapidly growing notoriety, he assures us that getting an appointment at Graffitis SWAG is still easy to do. They even accept walk-ins, though the shop gets especially crowded on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit Graffitis SWAG at 3461 Roosevelt Highway, Suite 316, Atlanta, Georgia 30349 to experience it first-hand.
Photos of Killer Mike by Zack Arias. Graffitis SWAG Shop logo designed by Killer Mike. Barber shop customer photos by Community Liaison / Marketing Consultant for Graffitis SWAG Shop, G.G. McGee, and other shop barbers.