When your hair begins to noticeably thin—as it does for around 40 percent of men and a similar percentage of women by age 40—you’ve really got two options; accept and hopefully embrace the genetic hand you’ve been dealt or intervene. The way I saw it, accepting a balding pate was forcing me to be a grown-ass man at the tender age of 28. I knew it was a mantle I couldn’t believably take on.
In days of yore, a contra-baldness intervention would have meant wearing a hairpiece, undergoing some dubious holistic treatment or, at the very least, owning an unseemly collection of hats. I was amazed in 2005 to discover that another option existed: follicular unit transplantation. Based on the full-looking crew cut he wore, it worked.
I couldn’t afford the five grand it cost but I found a way to do it all the same. Four months passed and I began to get the feeling that I’d flushed a large chunk of my annual income away. Six months post-procedure it was springtime on my scalp however and, by the ten-month mark, the blooming results had given me a renewed confidence and tacit approval to carry on being a feckless bobo and tousle-haired shag-about (British for “fuck boy”—hoping it catches on on this side of the pond) for the foreseeable future. I was very pleased that my intervention had paid off and twelve years later, I still am.
The one drawback was that the procedure had left me with a six-inch-long scar at the back of my head that a high and tight haircut revealed. This was the style that both suited me best and made the most of the original and replanted hair I planned to cling onto like grim death.
Then, a few months back, that I discovered a possible solution for my problem. It’s called scalp micropigmentation or SMP and involves having one’s scalp tattooed with tiny dots to create the appearance of stubble. Apparently, it’s just the thing for people trying to camouflage scars acquired from being intent on preserving their crowning glory. People like me.
These days you only have to think about a good or service before your browser is populated by ads for it. I ended up clicking on the ads of several SMP practitioners who were gang-courting me and was drawn to a firm called Scalp Micro USA. Six years ago its owner Matt Lulo travelled to the UK to get the treatment which hadn’t yet arrived in the US. Soon after, he underwent training in Birmingham, England so that he could set up shop for himself Stateside. Lulo was the first guy doing SMP in New York City. In 2017, the Tri-State area positively bristles with firms gunning to ink banged-up domes.
But while camouflaging scars makes up a good portion of Scalp Micro USA’s business, the majority of their work involves reengineering hairlines and creating the illusion of greater hair density throughout the scalp of those stricken with both male pattern baldness as well as men and women with non-androgenic alopecia. Thanks to my hair transplant and my avoidance of environments with overhead florescent lighting, I don’t yet need to adopt the buzzed look that full-head SMP pairs with best. Inevitably though, that day will come. When it does, it would be nice to know that a seemingly realistic-looking buzz cut and not a shiny, pale, pink pate will be exposed to the world.
Whether it was scar camouflage, hairline restoration or creating the appearance of greater hair density, Scalp Micro USA’s before and after pics impressed me and within a day or two, I found myself wandering into their midtown office for a consultation.
Lulo greeted me warmly and gave me the opportunity to checkout SMP in the flesh. Or rather on it. First he showed me his own micropigmented head, then the heads of the two guys who work alongside him and finally in the heads of two clients, mid-procedure. Each scalp I cast my eyes over looked like it belonged to a swarthy, eighteen-year-old US Marine, two-days into basic training. I was impressed enough to start thinking more seriously about having my entire head detailed and not just my scar.
At Matt’s invitation, I took off my hat and he gave my self-inflicted wound and the rest of my noggin a once over.
“You still have quite a lot of hair,” he said. “That’s good because our work will blend nicely with what you have and give you a textured look when you clip it short.”
I then confessed to Matt that I wasn’t yet ready to adopt a super short haircut; that I was playing the long game, prepping.
“If you want to wear it a little longer in the meantime, SMP is going to create more density for you too,” he said adding that the dots will reduce the contrast between my brown hair and pale scalp. “The only thing is, until you decide to clip your hair short, we can only really work within your existing hairline. If we took it lower than that and you grew it out, you’d basically have two hairlines which is going to look a little strange.”
It seemed that Lulo was also saying that once I was ready to make buzzing my skull part of my lifestyle, I could sport the hairline that virginal, sixteen-year-old me had taken for granted. This was good to know. Matt then told me that to best benefit from his inky ministrations, I’d need to cut my hair very short immediately prior to my SMP sessions and that there would need to be two of these sessions spaced two weeks apart.
“Will it hurt?” I asked him.
“Do you have any tattoos?” he replied.
I told him that I didn’t.
“You’re going to feel it,” he said. “We don’t go as deep as a tattoo and I’m told that means that SMP hurts less. I don’t know personally because I don’t have any tattoos either.”
The last bit of information I took with me was that unlike a deeper tattoo, SMP is considered semi-permanent and that if I was going to commit to the buzz cut look long term, I’d need to have my dome re-tatted every four to six years.
The day of the session arrived and I shocked Greg, my long-time barber, by telling him to give me a high skin fade and clipping the top to a length of 1/16th of an inch—the sort of canvas Matt told me he would need to do his best work on. Greg told me that while he’d heard of SMP, he’d never seen it on any of the heads he’d dealt with adding: “That is, as far as I could tell.”
I got a sinking feeling as Greg revealed more and more of my cranium. It was the same feeling I’d experienced on the only other occasion I’d taken clippers to it. The issue was that compared with the rest of my slight visage, my cranium is too broad, too low, too flat, too brutal.
Greg did his best to assure me that it didn’t look too bad.
“Hey brother, I’ve seen worse,” he said has he wrapped a hot towel around my head.
Matt’s reaction was slightly less muted than Greg’s when I arrived at Scalp Micro USA and revealed my head to him.
“Beautiful!” he said, giving it a good look. “You’ve got a nice head. Y’know, I don’t think you’re going to want to cover it up once we’re done.”
I sat in Matt’s chair as he informed me that he would begin with strengthening my hairline, working back towards the crown of my head.
“We’ll take a five-minute break and then we’ll take care of that scar,” he said. “Ready?”
“Okay,” I replied and girded myself or the first of the needle’s many touches.
It hurt. Once per second came a combination of sharpness and pressure on one of the least fleshy and forgiving parts of my entire body. Matt told me that the hairline was often the most painful part and would be over shortly. Perhaps it was the initial spike of adrenaline beginning to ebb but I found the opposite to be true. The crown was certainly the most painful part for me and as we got to the break, I found myself sweating.
During the break I stood up and looked in the mirror. Though it was reddened, I could clearly see that Matt had already created the illusion of my scalp being thickly stubbled, my hairline more clearly demarcated. I almost looked tough or capable of carrying out an automotive repair. I set up a second appointment two weeks in the future.
I’d already told a couple of my friends that I was having SMP but I told most of that I’d simply decided to shave my head for shits and giggles. Still, I laid low for the next few days and opted to wear a hat on the handful of occasions when I went out, removing it only when the friends who knew wanted to take a peek. The prevailing opinion was one of surprise and not revulsion. I could some it up with this aggregated comment: “I think I prefer you with hair but you pull this off pretty well.”
As my hair grew back over the next two weeks, brighter lighting conditions betrayed the illusion of a uniform stubble. Upon closer inspection, a nosey fucker would be able discern the growing gap between two-dimensional dots and three-dimensional, soft, light-brown hairs now more than an eighth of an inch long. I always knew they’d be an awkward period during which the hair was too long to blend with SMP and too short to cover it and that I’d have to go through it twice.
Greg the barber seemed impressed after he prepped my head a second time, his fellow barbers crowding around me, struggling to tell the difference between my real and fugazi hairs.
I bolted out of Greg’s chair and within an hour was perched in Matt’s ready for him to finish the job. This time, he would be going over with what he’s already done but with a slightly darker pigment, the contrast of the two contributing to a more three-dimensional appearance. From my perspective, the second session differed from the first only in that I knew what to expect in terms of discomfort. Like the first time, I was in the chair for a little under an hour.
Today, around three weeks after my initial treatment, I’m no longer surprised by my reflection and in fact, I’ve grown to like the look just as Matt predicted. My friends like to feel my buzzed scalp as much as I do. I’m not ready to adopt my shorn look full time just yet but when I do, I’m relieved that I can feel good about what lies beneath.