The secret, mustachioed life of Milwaukee’s Mister Mellow
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In most ways, Hernando Melo seems to be a typical, unassuming 35-year-old. That is, until he dons a vaudevillian getup and slaps on a hand-cut felt mustache, effectively transforming from a soft-spoken husband and father into “Mister Mellow”—a verbose peddler of faux facial hair who’s been fixture at Milwaukee festivals this year.
Melo—a Milwaukee children’s performer—got the idea for his business last December, when he made his so-called “master list” of mustaches for a creative group he hosts for children each month at Bay View’s Collectivo. Melo was encouraged by the response his ’staches received. “Then I thought, ‘Maybe I can sell these,’ at least as a side thing,” he says.
In May, Melo took his hairy wares to the streets to debut Mister Mellow’s Cartooning & Mustachery at Bay View Gallery Night. Since that evening, he’s been a regular at (or just outside the gates of) most large-scale Milwaukee happenings, including Summerfest, Bastille Days, Summer Solstice Music Festival, Brady Street Festival, Wisconsin State Fair, and every cultural event at Henry Maier Festival Park.
So far, sales have been great, and reception of Mister Mellow’s old-timey barker persona has been even better. “People are usually entertained. Even if they’re not going to buy a mustache, they’ll say, ‘This is the most awesome thing ever,’ and they go on their way,” Melo says. “Usually people laugh. Making people smile and putting a mustache right above their smile—that’s my motto.”
The mustaches Melo makes are cut from sticky-felt. The handy handmade wooden box he carries with him—which also doubles as his sketch pad—houses approximately 70 ’stache styles, including bushy “The Lorax” and “The Yosemite,” the Super Mario Bros.-inspired “8-Bit,” as well as a Rollie Fingers-like handlebar simply called “The Legend.” Each item costs a dollar. Additionally, Melo offers caricature services, in which he draws people in three minutes or less, for $10.
Miraculously, Melo has earned enough money with his unorthodox summer gig to supplant his part-time job. However, with the end of Milwaukee’s lengthy festival season in sight (only the Indian Summer Festival at the Summerfest grounds remains, Sept. 6-8), he must get creative to keep the business growing as the temperatures dip.
“I wouldn’t say I could survive the winter [at this point], but I’m working on different ideas like maybe getting into businesses where I could do a mustache night or a drawing-people night. I have a couple weddings lined up. Anything I can do to keep it going. It’s a great job to have. You make your own hours and make people smile.”
The vocation also comes with a lofty—and unexpected—distinction. “As far as I know, I’m the only street mustache vendor in the world,” Melo says.
That claim is debatable, though, as Melo has recently taken on a 14-year-old apprentice called “Mister Smith” (the son of a friend) who is paid a 50 percent—or 50 cent—commission for each mustache he sells in addition to receiving sketching lessons from Melo.
While the Mister Mellow experiment hasn’t been without its bumps (e.g. limited local sticky-felt availability, being threatened with fines for selling at a public park), it’s gone pretty well.
“It’s a fun ride. I kind of feel like I’m Clark Kent sometimes when I’m in my regular clothes,” Melo says. “People know Mister Mellow, but if I’m in the street [out of uniform] you can walk right by me and not know who I am. It’s like I’m a really, really, really, really local celebrity.”
Oddly, a man who is scraping a one-of-a-kind living together from facial hair has none to speak of. He explains his naked upper lip: “It’s a good advertising spot and I don’t think my wife would want me to have a mustache.”