There's no better way to describe it than fastidious brawn.
It's masculine yet manicured, visceral but delicate. It's the peculiar, mesmerizing pastime of the beard and mustache competition.
While the first official contest was held in 1990 in Germany, it's only been the last 10 years that the hirsute competitive circuit has grown considerably.
Last weekend, the fourth annual Beard and Moustache Competition hosted by Dubs Was Here took place in Irvine. Dubs, a.k.a. Nicholas Watford, is the founder of Dubs Fine Men's Grooming Products, which specializes in competitive beard and mustache products. (dubswashere.com).
Dozens of men competed in a variety of categories including natural mustache, styled mustache, natural beard, partial beard, long beard and freestyle beard. The best-in-show winner, John Banks of Pinon Hills, took home $250 along with a statue made in his image.
The statue, by the way, was made onsite out of a wood block with a chainsaw by Laguna Beach artist John Mahoney.
"It's like a lion with a mane," said Watford, trying to describe the motive of men shaping their facial hair into sometimes elaborate decorations. "It's just something prominent and shows what men do. And now it's taken on a whole new appeal and aesthetic. It's much more vogue and acceptable."
Until you see the beards and mustaches up close, especially in the freestyle category, it's hard to fully appreciate. And it's not just the whiskers. It's the whole look.
Think honky-tonk reunion mixed with English dandies. There are punks, bikers, hillbillies, rockers, lumberjacks, Hungarians, Dali artisans and imperial throwbacks.
Tough, scruffy and full of product, the men greet each other warmly but hug carefully for fear of messing up their work.
And work it is — often years in the making.
"At first it's sometimes just a mustache or a pencil mustache or they want to go for a certain look," said Watford, who started competing in 2009. "Normally, it's an appearance they want to attain, but then they get bit by the bug and it's all out."
Watford said the Southern California area has several clubs that compete, including The Gentlemen's Social Club of Los Angeles, Bearded Villains and others.
"They take it very serious, but at the same time, it's all about the fun," he said. "The main thing is the bragging rights to hold onto for a year."
Next year is the biennial world championships, which will be held in Austin, Texas, in September. It draws clubs from throughout California and around the world.
"Los Angeles obviously is a large crew. Then we have Sacramento, which is a phenomenal, incredible crew that puts on an absolutely amazing show every year," he said. "But Austin Facial Hair Club is absolutely huge. That's almost a mecca. It's what got me into this. It's going to be an extravaganza. It will be absolutely insane — hundreds of competitors."
To an outsider, the bearded men may seem trendy, but to call them "hipsters" would be a mistake. There is no affectation here. Some of these styles go back thousands of years.
"For the most part with us, we're a really small little world. We all know each other. We travel together. So it's just who we are," Watford said. "If someone needs to slap a label on us, they're more than welcome to. But there is a history.
"You have your more traditionalists or revivalists of that old era where the men were dominant. They had their facial hair, and what style they had separated them from either a different socioeconomic class or a different sector."
As a result, Watford said that during the competitions the judges look at the whole outfit of the contestant and not just the hair. Men need to be authentic.
In a similar way, perhaps, men with extravagant beards and mustaches are more accepted now in popular culture.
"At first, years ago like in 2009, if I walked into a department store or into a public place, the parents would grab their kids and be like, stay away from this guy. He seems a little crazy," Watford said. "But then all of a sudden it just turned to where now it's like, 'Oh my gosh. Can I get pictures with you?' "
Still, owners of hard-core freelance beards sometimes need to tone it down for the workplace, depending on their autonomy. In other words, it's worker by day, bearder by night.
"It's almost like the whole superhero story," he said. "We have teachers and bankers. Some of them are actually in armed forces, police officers. A lot work in the entertainment industry."
Events like the local contest help raise money for charity, including the Movember Foundation, a global charity focused on men's health, the OC MO Network and others. The Anaheim Ducks also supported the event. Other supporters and volunteers included photographer Jeffrey Moustache, who has taken remarkable photos of worldwide contestants since 2010. For his gallery, visit theworldofbeards.com.
"I absolutely, wholeheartedly love what I do," Watford said. "I'm super grateful for the people I've met along the way. Basically, we're brothers for life."