A FORM OF CURRENCY prized in lower Manhattan, art is exchanged every day in SoHo, TriBeCa and the East Village for a variety of services and goods. Artists barter paintings and sculpture for rent, for dental work, for tax return advice, for a hot meal at Magoo's. One downtown artist even paid for a car with a painting.

Francine Hunter cuts hair for art. A retreaded avant-garde performance artist, she works under the name Jungle Red Studio out of a Franklin Street TriBeCa loft with bright yellow and red walls and what she calls a 16th-century Chinese opium bed's mattress.

About 25 artists -- among them Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Keith Sonnier, Laurie Simmons and Robert Mapplethorpe -- exchange art for Hunter's tonsorial services. This week, as everyone gets ready for the busy fall season, Hunter will be clipping and shearing madly.

In an interview in this month's issue of Art & Antiques, Hunter explained how she operates. She works on the classic barter system, haircut for artwork. Not just any art, though. If an artist wants a new do, Hunter wants to see slides first -- and she has an eye for talent. "With many of the artists whose work I collect," she said, "I've been the initiator, the one who has asked them if they would consider entering into this arrangement with me."

Hunter feels a strong bond with her clients. "Susan Rothenberg recently asked me to paint something on one of her paintings, and now she tells everyone, 'My hairdresser painted that red brushstroke.' "

Hunter has her dislikes as well as her likes. "Oh, God, I've done Julian Schnabel's hair, I've done David Salle's hair," she says, mentioning two of the Mary Boone Gallery wunderkinds. "I've done a lot of famous people's hair, and you know, I don't even want some of their work . . . If you're going to say you make art, you better have something to say. Otherwise get out of my face. I need people to be relaxed and entertained here. If they're not enjoying themselves, I don't want their business."

Jungle Red used to advertise with the slogan "A Wild Look at a Civilized Price." The look is still, for the most part, wild, though Hunter now counts among her clients some Wall Street figures. She doesn't get many East Village art punks in her new studio.

"They can't afford me," she says.