Coify Klatch

Coify Klatch

Mark “Ferni” Fernicola, the house barber at Lucky Soul Tattoo in Woodbridge, is part of a small diaspora of Fernicola barbers in Greater New Haven. His cousins cut hair in Wallingford and North Haven. All three learned the trade from Gerardo Fernicola—Ferni’s uncle—whose own apprenticeship began at his cousin’s barbershop in an Italian village when he was 9 years old. Except for a brief sabbatical after the family arrived in America—“He went to high school for like a month or two,” Ferni says, “and he was just like, ‘Nah, I’m good’’’—there has always been a Fernicola cutting hair.

Ferni’s career began less formally than his uncle’s. “I grew up giving my friends and myself really bad haircuts. We were kind of punk rock, and my dad had a beard trimmer… We’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna give you a mohawk.’” He turned professional 11 years ago, after following his uncle’s advice to go to barber school. “Hair school for me was like… a major eye opener… And that was kind of like what my uncle always said. Anyone can cut bangs across, but to make it look good, to blend it and all that stuff, that’s where the training comes in.”

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That Fernicola is explaining this to me at his chair in a tattoo shop suggests the unusual reach of the Fernicola franchise. Could a heritage Italian barber also manifest in a cheese shop or a haberdashery? But Fernicola isn’t an incidental colleague to the tattooists around him; he was first a customer, his arms now ornately sleeved in ink. As he shows me one element, a yellow star on his forearm, tattoo artist Jeremy DeMayo saunters over to confirm that the star was indeed Fernicola’s first, inked by DeMayo’s own hand sometime during the second Bush Administration. Fernicola returned to DeMayo frequently enough that he also “began sending a lot of this way over the years, and vice versa. So then I met those guys”—the owners of Lucky Soul—“and we became friends.” They asked him to join the business and, he adds with a laugh, “I became too good a friend. Now we’re sick of each other but can’t get rid of each other.”

Many of the clients he’s picked up since are strictly there for the haircut. He’s the house barber but he’s also the neighborhood barber. “I get a lot of local guys. Amity teachers come in here… And people bring their kids.” But haircuts at Lucky Soul are a gateway makeover that may break down whatever resistance you might have to getting something more indelible. And there’s a simple logic to, say, having your ponytail cut off—the “Hippie Killer” that Fernicola offers for as little as $30—so you can get a tattoo on the back of your neck. “There have been a couple times where people were getting a haircut and just like, on a whim, ‘Hey, you know what…,’” contemplating a tat to go with their cut. “So they get a little spa night,” he says with a laugh.

In his chair, getting the same regulation haircut the Amity teachers likely come for, I find myself taking the first baby steps, speculating about designs. I like birds. I like the number three… Fernicola breaks the reverie, asking me where I part my hair, intending to keep it longer around the part for comb-ready styling. But mostly, the haircut is happening in the background while we more expressly devote ourselves to becoming acquainted. His first question to me, a new customer, is simply whether I have anything going on over the weekend. The conversation blossoms from there. The easy repartee is something Lucky Soul cultivates, but it also reflects an essential bit of insight Fernicola picked up from his uncle’s barbershop in North Haven.

“It was a one-chair shop, so you got like 20 guys there on a Saturday… But I’d always watch the way he would just talk to people. Interacting with the kids. It was really a welcoming kind of thing.” The classic barbershop, particularly if it accepts walk-in traffic, becomes a gathering place with the barber as its host. Take a seat, and the haircut you came for is eventually the last thing on your mind.

And this too had roots in the Old World, where a barber could become something like a pillar of his community. “My parents and my uncle were from this little part of Italy where it was still recovering from World War II, so nobody had anything,” Fernicola explains. “They were on the bartering system. So my uncle kind of figured… you don’t have a dollar, you have a bushel of corn, a chicken. Okay, I’ll trade you this for a haircut or shave… And everyone in the neighborhood would be over their house because, ‘Hey, we got all this stuff. Come over for dinner. We’ll take care of you.’”

Fernicola the younger’s workstation is decorated with, among other elements of his trade, his uncle’s old leather strop. “If you look closely, it even has some hairs in it.” The elder Fernicola had started out with a straight razor and manual hair clippers—“Essentially, it’s what they invented to shear sheep”– then paired his razor with barber’s shears when that technology became available. Before reopening his practice in America, and for a long time afterward, he cut with nothing else. “A lot of new barbers now,” explains Fernicola, “they barely know how to use scissors. Whereas, the way the old guys were taught, it could be literally like any haircut… They’re able to reproduce it.” Fernicola, in turn, learned how to produce good electric trimmer and scissor cuts in trade school, then to reproduce the same haircuts with just scissors under his uncle’s tutelage. And eventually, the expansive resourcefulness of the Italian village barber made its way to a tattoo parlor in Woodbridge.

Fernicola tells me one of his favorite barbering stories. “A few years ago, one of my … was literally on the drive trying to turn left… And, all of a sudden, flash flash flash, that’s it. The whole strip goes out. No power in Woodbridge.” In his telling, Lucky Soul goes dark and all the electrical sounds of clipping and inking in the room stop. “Poor Dave drove like an hour and a half just trying to get here and he’s got a wedding he’s got to go to over the weekend.” Fernicola applies a warm shaving treatment to the back of my neck and pauses his story just long enough to swap his shears for a straight razor. “Okay, just grab a chair,” he recalls himself saying. “Comb and scissors. We got natural light. We’ll go outside.”

Not much later, under a cape in the strip mall parking lot, the haircut he came for was probably the last thing on Dave’s mind.

Ferni’s Barbershop
Lucky Soul Tattoo – 214 Amity Road, Suite A, Woodbridge (map)
Tues-Fri noon-7pm, Sat 11am-6pm
(203) 397-5825

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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