Above Ground: Good Hair and Giving Back to the LGBTQ+ Community

Above Ground is a recent addition to the Welton corridor of Five Points.
Above Ground is a recent addition to the Welton corridor of Five Points. Teague Bohlen
Diversity has long been a hallmark of Five Points. Above Ground, a new salon at 2737 Welton, fits right in with that tradition, offering a safe space for LGBTQ+ patrons and allies alike, even offering free haircuts for trans/queer youth on the first Monday of every month. “I’ve been a queer-identified, gender-non-conforming person since as long as I can remember, and getting haircuts was always a sore spot for me," explains owner Ashe Bowen. "At this point in my career, I’m established enough to give back.”

We checked in with Bowen to talk about Above Ground, and what it’s like to run a business that’s as much about cause and community as it is about commerce.

click to enlarge Above Ground owner Ashe Bowen at work. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
Above Ground owner Ashe Bowen at work.
Teague Bohlen
Westword: Tell us a little about Above Ground — how long it's been in business, your background in the industry, all that good stuff.

Ashe Bowen: Above Ground was originally my mentor Cookie’s salon in Michigan, and it’s where I started learning my skills back in 2003. Since then, I’ve honed my talents and worked around the globe, from London Fashion Week to studying with and teaching for Australian product company Kevin Murphy. Since Cookie’s passing, I’ve wanted to get back to my roots. I opened Above Ground as an expression of my experiences and as an opportunity to focus on diversity.  When I see difference, I gravitate toward it instead of running away. I want people to feel inspired when they come in to my business, regardless of who they are. Above Ground also supports those who inspire me and who inspire others in my community, and I offer regular specials to those individuals in our community.

So why open a shop in Denver? Why in Five Points? What about the city and that neighborhood drew you there?

The cultural diversity and landmarks of Five Points feel like home. Coming from Detroit, and as a person who has experienced being a part of diverse community, I wanted to work and grow in one here in Denver. The only things I don’t want around me are negativity and judgment…the rest is up to each person individually. I love people, but I just can’t stand ignorance.

Your bio on the Above Ground website talks about you personally serving the queer community for about twenty years. Tell us a little bit about how you've been doing that, and why it's so important, both to you personally and to the Denver LGBTQ+ community.

In 2012 I started a non-gender clothing store in Baker called {A•(s)He}, which quickly grew into a larger space, Ashe Atelier, in RiNo. That was where I combined a non-gender salon, gallery and clothing store. Unfortunately, I lost my lease, as I was not able to compete with the corporate giants that came in and took over the art district…which led me to Above Ground.

Above Ground is starting a program that gives free haircuts to trans/queer youth on the first Monday of every month. Why that specific form of charitable work?

I identify as non-binary myself and understand the complexities of affordable expression. So the program comes from my wish to give back to the queer community — my community — as a sign of family and support for those who may not have the ability or the luxury to be able to afford to work with someone who can help them shape their self-expression. Hair is one of those things that can be essential to establishing identity and feeling a sense of belonging in the world at a potentially fragile time in life.

click to enlarge The original art on the walls is rotated on a regular basis, to give exposure to local artists. - TEAGUE BOHLEN
The original art on the walls is rotated on a regular basis, to give exposure to local artists.
Teague Bohlen
What other outreach programs does Above Ground participate in?

I support my community every opportunity I can; I have a unique opportunity to have all walks of life from our city come sit in my chair, and I’m able to help connect them to each other for creative efforts, to further their careers and businesses, and for personal growth as well. Above Ground has been able to host, contribute and partake in events such as queer sober speed-dating and queer community yoga. I’ve also done a lot of free cuts for the homeless and the low-income population in Five Points. Additionally, my clients have contributed a total of $700 for the queer cuts so far, and I plan to take all donations and turn them over to queer youth organizations like Urban Peak and Rainbow Alley.

Above Ground also offers a "curated music and art experience each time you walk through the door." Explain what that means, in practical terms. Are these local musicians and artists? 

Well, I don’t want to be predictable, so I always keep an eye out for what’s new. I’ve hosted renowned DJs to play in the shop, and we rotate the art displayed on our walls. But let’s not forget what Above Ground is here for: The hair that walks out is picture-worthy, too!

Speaking of music...what bands or artists are on your own personal must-listen list?

I’m from the Detroit techno and Chicago house scene in the ’90s, so my taste is pretty obscure. I doubt you’d recognize any names, but I can say it’s one of my truest pleasures to introduce people to my music and watch them enjoy it. But if you want a name? Maybe a little Cardi B.

What's the best piece of advice that you ever got about running Above Ground?  

Always be yourself. Stay honest and true to your sense of self so that you never get lost. And make sure you always have an attorney negotiate your lease.  
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen