ABOUT THREE MONTHS ago, a clean-cut Erich von Marko looked in the mirror and saw serious growth potential.
The 32-year-old musician normally grew a beard in the winter but had gone barefaced for about 18 months. He needed a new look -- one that would amplify his rock-star status and give his face a little kitsch value.
On a whim, von Marko grew a caterpillarlike mustache.
"I figured I'd get the old cop look just for the summer," he said. "Or maybe the Freddie Mercury."
It was a mark of rugged manliness for legions of men in the 1970s and '80s. Countless Americans grew mustaches as facial hair-mania swept the country. But the mustache fell out of style in the '90s. The grunge look -- greasy hair and stubbly mugs -- took over in the early '90s, followed more recently by the clean-shaven mod look.
Now, a number of undaunted guys have put down their razors and let their mustaches grow.
Locally, the trend can be seen in Hampden, where hipsters sporting facial hair -- often riding mopeds -- frequent bars such as Rocket to Venus and Holy Frijoles.
"More artisans and progressive people are wearing them," said Rachael Epstein, a stylist at Sprout: An Organic Hair Salon in Hampden. "It's definitely something that's suggesting they don't want to look like everybody else."
The uptick in mustache wearers could be a reaction to the recent clean-shaven mod look young men have been sporting, said Holly Alford, a fashion professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"Fads come and go, and they always come back," Alford said. "The whole idea of wearing the mustache again is: It's been a while. That makes it the perfect fad to bring to the table."
New mustache incarnations do not mimic the broomlike Tom Selleck/Alex Trebek style of years past, but instead emulate bikers and pirates. Wispy horseshoes, handlebars and caterpillarlike mustaches seem to be the most popular.
Actors and musicians may also be influencing the resurgence. Johnny Depp can be seen stroking his mustache in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen resurrected the broom-like mustache for his socially inept character Borat.
"People love a big, bushy mustache," said Pete Babones, who runs the Beatnik Barbershops in Federal Hill and Mount Vernon. "Not as a sign of masculinity, but for the camp factor it's definitely kind of popular."
Curt Schmelz, who lives in the city, grew his handlebar mustache to pay tribute to indie musician and artist Billy Childish.
"I can't grow one like his, but I was kind of going for something like that," said Schmelz, 25. "I guess I pull it off, because I know it looks ridiculous, and that's how you have to pull off a mustache, I think."
Jed Dodds, artistic director for Creative Alliance at the Patterson, remembers noticing the trend about six months ago.
"There's definitely a mustache moment going on," said Dodds, who is clean-shaven. "There's a thing in the air. A big, furry thing in the air."
In June, the Creative Alliance hosted a tribute party called Don't Touch My Mustache. Some participants grew mustaches specifically for the event. Organizers handed out fake mustaches for women and unwilling or unable men.
"If the person wears it with joy and style, it can look great," said filmmaker John Waters, who is arguably Baltimore's most iconic mustachioed man. "But it's a hard thing to pull off. Usually, you look affected or like an idiot. Or a Village Person."
Waters, who grew his sliver of a mustache when he was 19 as a tribute to Little Richard, cannot imagine himself clean-shaven.
"It's just part of me, like my eyebrow," Waters said. "I have three eyebrows."
Confidence is key, Epstein said. He who hesitates should not grow hair above the lip.
"He needs to be funky," she said. "He needs to have a really great sense of style in order for it to work."
Adam Endres, an artist who lives in the city, said his mustache has boosted his rebel status. Some people who don't know him assume he rides a motorcycle solely because of the 'stache.
"I'm not a weakling, but I don't see myself as a tough guy," said Endres, 27. "But it makes me look that way, which is kind of a joke."
Unfortunately, Endres hasn't noticed a considerable improvement in his love life since he grew his mustache.
"I don't think it has helped or deterred me on that level," he said.
The mustache can also make eating and other basic functions tricky.
"I hate blowing my nose," Endres said.
Unless the mustache re-enters mainstream fashion, it may just be a pop culture hiccup. Endres thinks he might shave his when summer ends, and von Marko isn't sure just yet. These kinds of trends usually last about six months to a year before fading away, said Alford, the fashion professor.
"If high fashion holds onto it and decides in their runway shows they're going to put guys in mustaches, then it's going to hold," she said.
Some of the new mustache-clad men may opt to keep their facial hair going for a while, though. The decision to grow a mustache is an extremely personal one, which can last for years, Alford said.
"My husband wears a mustache, and he knows I'll kill him if he takes it off," Alford said. "I just don't think he looks good without it."
Schmelz said he'll probably keep his mustache for a while, unless it gets popular.
"If it becomes really cool, I'll cut it off," he said. "If everyone had one, I would just feel ridiculous -- not the OK kind of ridiculous."