By Chris Parker
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Before she passed away on April 23, two weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer at age 56, Sonia Peterson had done more than her share to make the world, quite literally, a more colorful place. It was Peterson, founder of the Hair Police, who introduced the Twin Cities to Manic Panic hair dyes and synthetic tresses that could make even Rainbow Brite look tame. In fact, if you ever found yourself staring at a particularly spectacular hair invention at Muddy Waters or Pizza Lucé, there's a better than even chance that Peterson was behind its creation. Peterson pioneered two techniques that revolutionized her trade: the no-glue pinch-braid method of installing extensions, and the "dreadperm," which gave Marley-like locks to white people without making them wait for the funk to kick in.
Though hair may have been her life's work, along the way Peterson also represented the vanguard--or several vanguards, really--of the local music and alternative-culture scene. She opened the Cities' first internet café (before the web even existed), showed various painters and visual artists, promoted after-hours music parties, and acted as a dance-law freedom fighter. Peterson also is storied to have turned in the longest guest list ever honored at First Avenue.
Peterson's various operations and storefronts provide a local history of hipster-led gentrification. When she opened her Lyn-Lake Hair Police in 1989, Peterson told everyone to refer to her building there as the "Orbit Mall." And indeed it was something like a station unto itself. The only thing around it of note was Tatters and an adjacent peep show--where Sunny's Wigs now stands--with a sign outside that read, "Movies 25 Cents." Next to the salon in the Orbit Mall was her short-lived coffee shop, which she called "The Center for Intelligent Travel." This spot eventually sported several Apple computers in a corner set up for internet relay chat under the philosophical tagline that "talking is traveling."
Peterson's hair business had traveled itself from a spot next to the original Via's Vintage Wear in the Warehouse District, where the Target Center parking lot now stands.
"There wasn't a front-desk person or anything," remembers Peterson's old party-promoter-in-crime, Chris Strouth. "You just walked in and sort of uncomfortably walked around. There were six-foot canvases of swirly things thrown around...paintings you might expect someone to do if they were taking a lot of acid."
While they were looking for a more permanent spot, the salon relocated to the Block E area of downtown, temporarily situating herself next to Suns, Shinder's, and the city's infamous ur-dive Moby Dick's.
"You had to go up the steps past whatever weird art installation we would have in the hallway, then down a long corridor past all sorts of weird artist space to get to this last little section that was the salon," Strouth remembers. "Jehovah's Witnesses used to camp outside the store each weekend and tell all of us heathen punk-rock types we were going to hell. It was really a testament to the faith people put in her, because nobody really freaked out during that transitional period."
Almost immediately after Peterson set up in Lyn-Lake, the House Nation party promotion team of Strouth, Peterson, and DJs Kevin Cole and Tom Spiegel started throwing parties there. One event, which Peterson called "Absolutely No Dancing," drew more than 1,000 people--and quite a few squad cars.
Eventually, the Hair Police would launch a few satellites, with salons opening in Amsterdam (1994) and, more recently, Los Angeles. Peterson sold the Minneapolis store to former employee and friend Kelly Aos, who remembers the free spirit in Peterson. She recites a few of the random phrases Peterson coined for House Nation party flyers.
"One of them said 'Smart Women Wear Big Shoes' and another said 'Love Us or Weave Us,'" Aos says with a laugh. "She had such a Sonia way of doing things, and she always said she knew the universe would take care of her."