Backstage before a show at any of Chicago’s music venues you’ll find musicians and their friends, press, venue staff, security guards, various hangers-on, and, very likely, hairdresser Gilberto Castro, armed with his black leather case filled with shears, hair clippers, combs, and razors. For Castro, someone who dabbled a bit in music himself, every show is a chance for him to see bands that he’s styled before and to meet new ones.
Castro, 42, says he has cut hair for more than 300 bands, including his first famous clients, the Plain White T’s. Some bands call days before they come into town to make sure they get on his schedule.
Lots of acts have their own hair person, but Castro offers his services to all musicians—at fests like Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, and Riot Fest, plus Chicago's storied music venues—for free. Of course, he accepts tips, and the exposure on Instagram and other social media sites has made him a thriving rock-star of hair.
By day, Castro works as artistic director at BCS Hair Design (927 W. 35th St.) in Bridgeport in a shop owned by his sister Liz Ramirez, who also does hair. The shop, originally located in Pilsen where he grew up and still lives, was opened by his mother Celia Castro in 1992 and called Beauty Corner Studio. They moved the shop to its current location in 2005 and shortened the name to BCS. Celia retired in 2010.
Castro says that when his sister took over the shop, she had thought about changing the name, but he convinced her that keeping “BCS” was in their best interest for marketing purposes—he uses the name Backstage Cuts (keeping the BCS abbreviation) for his side venture.
As a child, “I could never throw a ball, so I was enrolled in a lot of arts programs. My parents wanted to keep me active,” says Castro. He learned metal-working, thinking maybe he’d follow in his father’s footsteps as a pipe fitter and welder—which didn't end up happening, but he says the skills would later help him in his hair career.
Then, about 25 years ago, he attended a hair show in Rosemont with his mother.
“Everyone was dressed in black, looking cool. That’s what I wanted to do,” Castro says. “I told my mother I wanted to be a platform artist right away. I never consider myself a hairdresser, I’m a platform artist.”
Shortly after attending the hair show with his mother, Castro enrolled in beauty school and two years later became the first Latino in Chicago to work for famed hair stylist Paul Mitchell’s company. Castro continued working for Mitchell for 16 years as an educator, going from salon to salon teaching new techniques to others, even after he returned to his family's business.
In 2009, while at the BCS Salon, Castro received a call from a friend of the band Plain White T’s, telling him that they were at the All-State Arena in Rosemont for a show and needed haircuts.
“I canceled my appointments and headed there right away. They were great and started introducing me to other bands that they knew,” Castro says.
That's how Backstage Cuts was born—with clients like Avenged Sevenfold, English rockers Asking Alexandria, Nitzer Ebb, and dozens more. Demand became so high that he recruited two coworkers from the BCS Salon, Mario Castro (no relation) and Erandi Tovar, to help him.
Castro most recently styled the stars at Riot Fest, but he's also cut hair at the Alternative Press magazine festival, Warped Tour, Lollapalooza, and the Lilith Fair reunion show. When there’s not a music festival in town, he’s often at clubs like the Bottom Lounge, Cobra Lounge, House of Blues, and Metro.
When he first began cutting hair for musicians, “friends and family thought I was crazy, they just didn’t get it,” he says. But in addition to be a great marketing tool, he says it’s fun to be on the scene and “on stage, in a way, backstage.”
Castro dabbled as a musician himself when he was in his early 20s, in a local industrial synth band called Black Betty. He also indulged his love of being in the spotlight at the national Hair Wars Supreme Salon Tour competition, taking second place in 2014, winning it in 2015, and then becoming a judge the following year and “performing” in front of the audience at halftime of that competition.
Backstage at Riot Fest last weekend, Denton Adam, tour manager for Mayday Parade, explained that Castro is a unique figure.
“I don’t know anyone in the other cities doing what Gil does,” Adam said. “We first met him three or four years ago, and now the band asks for him every time we come into Chicago.”
Alex Garcia, guitarist for Mayday Parade, said “It’s always a treat to come to Chicago because of him,” and drummer Jake Bundrick added, “It’s always hard to find someone to cut your hair when you’re on the road. Every time we roll through we hit him up.”
Over the years, several bands have asked Castro to go on tour with them, but he says he’s always declined because it would keep him away from his main clients at the BCS Salon.
“There would be too much downtime and all we’d end up doing is partying. It would be nice,” he says with a laugh. “If I was in my early 20s, hell yeah.”