Cameron Birkhofer, 28, carefully sets out the tools of his trade. Black liquid is poured into several thimble-size containers that look like the plastic top of a syrup bottle. A needle is set to the correct depth needed for the job. He completes the setup before his client arrives, so all is ready in the clean, minimalist room. A giant rose in shades of gray is painted top to bottom on the wall behind him.
“This is my first 'big girl' tattoo,” Megan Newman said. “They’re three roses for my three daughters. I have been a single mom for a long time and they are my everything.”
Newman, 27, was sitting on a black sofa in front of a large picture window, enjoying the sunshine while waiting at Ghost Dog Tattoo in Cloquet. Her daughters, 2-year-old twins and a 4-year-old, were being watched by a friend as Newman received the outlines of the rose leaves.
She will be back in a few weeks for the next step of her tattoo. When completed, it will be shades of black and gray with a touch of color.
Her artist, Birkhofer, recently moved from the Twin Cities to work at the shop full time. He had been visiting the shop as a guest tattoo artist off and on for the last year.
His cousin, Philip Birkhofer, 27, owns the shop and works behind the scenes. He bought the now-10-year-old business three years ago.
While Philip enjoys watching the tattooing process, he is not an artist. He takes care of the books, appointments and other necessary day-to-day business operations.
The entrepreneurs come from families with a history of self-employment. Philip's father owned a limousine business and Cameron's owns several group homes in the Duluth area.
“I’m just an average kid who grew up in Duluth who grew up being creative in art and that’s the direction I took,” Cameron said.
He majored in intercultural studies at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis. Students are required to do their internship at a small business abroad. He found himself in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he helped build a skate park.
He started looking for a job online before he came back to the U.S.
He took a job as an airbrush artist at a booth at the Mall of America and at Valley Fair. In his spare time, he read tattoo magazines. When a co-worker began apprenticing as a tattoo artist, Cameron took notice.
Steve De Los Reyes of Ink Kings Tattoo in the Elk River area took on Cameron as an apprentice.
“I was lucky to work under someone that was so good,” Cameron said. “He is a solid artist.”
He spent a year just learning the basics, from setup and take-down, cleanliness and blood-borne pathogens.
Cameron drove back to Duluth to work in the family business for a week to earn money to pay his bills, then headed back to his apprentice job and worked there for several weeks. The pattern was repeated many times over the roughly 13 months Cameron apprenticed. It was not unusual for him to work a 60-hour week.
“I would work eight or nine hours a day, go home, eat and relax. I was booked a month in advance,” Cameron said. “I worked on designs for the next day, then do it all over again.”
At times, he slept in his car. Now, he feels he is doing well.
Finally, it was time. He started as most do in his profession, by creating tattoos on fake rubber skin, bananas and pig ears.
When the time came to do his first tattoo on a person, he started on himself by using his mother's drawing from years ago. He used a simple pair of pliers with clean, sharp lines. His skateboarding friends also let him use them for practice. He received his state license and was ready to begin down his new path.
Cameron's mentor encouraged him to become proficient in many styles of tattoo artistry.
“He told me to 'be like a Swiss Army knife,'" he said.
Cameron uses a program on his iPad to draw requested tattoos and make adjustments as needed. He then prints out the designs and transfers them to clients.
He said the majority of his clientele are women in their mid-20s to mid-30s. He had one client who received her first tattoo in her mid-70s.
He said about half of the tattoos are meaningful to the client, like Newman's roses; the rest just like the body art. Some even consider themselves tattoo collectors.
Four years into tattooing, Cameron's arms are still blank canvases. He said he is waiting for the perfect design before he gets art done on his arms. He already has several on his legs and plans to continue to fill that space first.
“I got into tattooing because I like art; I don't need to look like a tattoo artist,” Cameron said. “I’m not in a hurry. I have friends who are tattooing and they got two full sleeves in two or three years and they hate half of the tattoos because they did it so quick.”
Ghost Dog Tattoo is located at 121 Avenue C.