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TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the bob to the buzz cut, the pageboy to the pixie, hairstyle trends come and go faster than a teenage crush. But today, taming the tresses isn't about just following the pack; it's a matter of sheer personal expression.

"Everyone wants to stand out," said Luis Cendejas, a lanky 17-year-old who spends 15 minutes each morning spiking his black hair into shiny peaks with gel. "Since a lot of people dress the same, the only thing that makes them different is hair," he added, his friends cheering his words outside Fairfax High School the other day.

A hairstyle can be a visual code for the clique a teen travels in, but not always. Today, the mane game is less about typecasting and more about youthful experimentation. State-of-the-art, at-home hair color kits, targeted to teens and 20-somethings, have made it easier--and more affordable--to create funky looks so there's nothing shocking about girls and guys going blond, blue or even multicolor.

"If you go back 25 years, it was a few punks who were dyeing their hair," said Tish Bellomo, who started the hair-color line Manic Panic with her sister Snooky Bellomo 24 years ago. "It got more mainstream because of the music scene. Now you turn on MTV and every other band has color," said the self-described "ex-punk rocker" who is based in Long Island City, N.Y.

The blue mop on Jake Sheiner, 15, would once have screamed punk rocker, but the Fairfax High freshman's interests lean more toward politics and community service. "My hair is more a statement against conformity than anything else," he said.

"All my friends dye their hair and we are all different," said Melody Kampas, whose older sister helped her bleach her brown locks blond and streak them with rainbow colors.

Far from protesting the plumage, many parents are encouraging it. Oliver Barroso, 15, admitted that his mom wasn't thrilled when he first started growing his hair long two years ago. But now that he's sprouted a full Afro, "she wants me to make it look more exotic," he said. A buyer for Trader Joe's, his mother is constantly bringing home new shampoos and styling products for him to try, Barroso said.

Jake's mom not only found a salon for her son, she also shelled out $70 for his dye job. "Next time, I'm going to [hair salon chain] Fantastic Sam's," he joked, flashing a mouthful of braces.

Complicated colors and cuts no longer have to mean expensive salon visits. When she decided to go from dark brown to jet black, Casi Iszard, 15, went to a Beverly Hills salon. But now, she hits the bottle--Feria's "Starry Night"--every six weeks. "It's the best blue-black there is," said the self-described Goth.

Of course, one woman's blessing is another woman's curse. "I had black hair all my life and it was boring," said Kana Goto, 21, a recent Orange Coast College graduate, who highlighted her jet-black locks with Clairol bleach for the first time three months ago. Goto is one of a growing number of Asian American women going blond. "We see a lot of Americans and Europeans with blond hair, so why not?" she said when stopped on the sidewalk in front of Johnny Rockets on Melrose Avenue.

Doing one's own 'do is part of the notion of hair as a creative statement, according to Jennifer Gener, a 15-year-old with a pierced lip, a J.Lo-like studded bandanna on her head and a guitar case slung across her back. Her monthly ritual, which takes roughly five hours, involves bleaching her long locks and weaving them into hundreds of tiny braids. "I started braiding it because it was hot," she said during a break from shopping along Melrose. "But now, it's more a form of personal expression."

The regimen is weekly for Eliza, a 20-year-old bottle blond who works in a clothing store and did not want to give her last name. She bleaches her hair with a mixture containing 40% peroxide and 60% Clairol bleach, then colors the tips with a combination of Fudge's "Yellow Submarine" and Punky Colors "Bright Yellow."

Fudge's "Orange Crush" dye is the secret to Bill Hardy's miniature Mohawk. "It took about 30 minutes to cut and an hour and a half to color--a little before 'The Sopranos' to a little after," said the 25-year-old production assistant from North Hollywood. "I'm using hair-care products for the first time since sixth grade," he said, brandishing a bag full of recently purchased potions.

"I'm going blue tomorrow. 'Blue Velvet,' that is."

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Freelancer Adam Tschorn contributed to this story.

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