If you’ve ever scrolled through Instagram looking for that perfect photo of pastel hair to show your colorist, you’ve likely heard of Guy Tang. He has over two million followers on the site as well as 1.6 million on YouTube where he’s an exuberant educator to colorists all over the world. He’s one of the colorists who have helped make bold, unnaturally-hued hair so popular. And it's no wonder, since his colors were made to be shared with the world.

Rather than a traditional Instagram caption, most of his photos list the formulas he used to achieve each dye job (from initial color lifting to gloss and conditioning with wonder conditioner Olaplex), while his YouTube channel goes in depth to show the process of taking people from their natural brunette hues to mythical figures with solar-powered, color changing hair. Earlier this year he also launched MyIdentity, a professional hair-color line, allowing salons near you to recreate his creations from metallic lavender to Phoenix-color hair, which looks neon during the day but glows like a firefly under black lights.

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When I call him to talk about his inventive colors, he’s just flown back to Los Angeles from Sydney. Tang travels a lot these days. So much that he’s stopped accepting clients unless they agree to be part of his educational YouTube series. Tang moved to Los Angeles seven years ago and his oldest hair-color transformation on his YouTube channel is from May 2014. He’s clearly had a meteoric rise in a short time.

I start with the obvious question: Where does he get his ideas for these colors? Today it’s not surprising to see hair that glows in the dark, unicorn hair with colors straight out of a Lisa Frank drawing, or a mane that matches our rose gold iPhones, but someone had to come up with the color combos that become the summer’s hottest trends. “You know, I don’t follow trends,” he says. “That’s probably why.” He explains that he doesn’t care what celebrities are doing with their hair; he’s constantly scanning the world for color combinations that interest him. “We blend eye shadow in different tones, why can’t we do that in hair?” he says. “I take that concept and get inspired by things surrounding us every day.” But dreaming up a new color and making it work in real life are two different things.

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Tang says that he always loved photography and thanks his training with a camera for his approach to hair color. “When you study photography you have to understand the primary colors and the way light hits — everything is about lighting.” Hair-color isn’t so different. Even though we classify hair as “blonde,” “brunette,” or other easy categories, what we see on people’s heads — even in their natural color — is an endless blend of varying shades, pigments, and shadows.

It’s likely that this obsession with the camera has also helped him be so successful in the social media age. Tang is very open about the fact that color appears differently in real life than it does on camera. “There’s two different types of hair-color — one for editorial and one for commercial wear,” he says. “If you want things to come up on camera, you have to exaggerate the tones.” A subtle pink might come off as blonde on Instagram. When Tang was taking clients, he says that part of the pre-color consultation with the person sitting in his chair involved figuring out where they wanted their hair-color to shine.

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In the past, trial and tweaking may have led to his color creations but with the invention of MyIdentity, he had to get into the lab with a chemist to make sure each color worked as promised every time. “I had to understand the science before I could become the artist,” he says. He didn’t mention how long it took him to create the first metallic color he was happy with, but explained that his color line made it possible to achieve his results without “mixing five things to make it.”

Unlike painters or photographers who have nearly unlimited abilities to tweak the color until it’s just right, hair can be damaged by too much processing. “We have to think about the integrity and health of the hair,” Tang says. “You can only push the hair to a certain point.”

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As anyone who has sat through multiple long days in a stylist's chair just to get lavender hair can attest, patience is key to getting the perfect color. “Oftentimes people rush to get these colors,” he says, “Clients are impatient and hurry their stylist.” But these colors take time. “It’s just like cooking. If you want a roast beef sandwich you have to slow roast that beef first. You can’t just put it in the microwave.”

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