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Northland makes its mark: Tattoo enthusiasts find inspiration in region’s beauty

Mike Rosendahl, a tattoo artist at Benchmark Tattoo, applies a protective ointment after finishing the design on Evan Erickson's arm. The concept features Erickson's father's rowboat called "Spirit of Madeline Island" and the Aerial Lift Bridge. “He did a fantastic job of reflecting the boat in the water,” Erickson said. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Evan Erickson of La Pointe, Wis., watches as Mike Rosendahl, tattoo artist at Benchmark Tattoo in Duluth, finishes up a design of Erickson's father's rowboat on Thursday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Duluth tattoo artist Mike Rosendahl proudly displays his big "Minnesota" tattoo. Local tattoo artists say body art in the form of Northland pride is common around these parts — and that’s true even with the artists themselves. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Tattoo artist Mike Rosendahl applies a white line in a tattoo on Evan Erickson's arm. After three and a half hours, Erickson’s sixth tattoo is a tribute to his lineage and the journeys of his forefathers. “I’m a fourth generation islander," Erickson said. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
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Duluth native Elizabeth Nagel, Denver, has an outline of Lake Superior tattooed on her back. Also on her tattoo: an anchor that represents Duluth.6 / 6

Evan Erickson rested in a reclined chair at Benchmark Tattoo in Duluth as artist Mike Rosendahl buzzed permanent lines into his left bicep.

In his latest tattoo, a rowboat glides through hazy Lake Superior waves as the Aerial Lift Bridge looms in the distance. The two men collaborated on the design, but it was Rosendahl who brought it to life, Erickson said.

"Originally, it was just a picture of a boat, so I put a little bit of my own spin on the water effect," Rosendahl said.

"He did a fantastic job of reflecting the boat in the water," said Erickson, of La Pointe, Wis.

This tattoo symbolizes the route Erickson's father sailed many times from Madeline Island to Duluth, he said, adding that he also has a tattooed outline of Lake Superior with a wheel and an anchor.

Local tattoo artists say body art in the form of Northland pride is common around these parts — and that's true even with the artists themselves.

"I've got a huge 'Minnesota' tattooed on my stomach," said Rosendahl, lifting his shirt revealing the state name etched across his torso and ribs in cursive letters.


'True folk art'

Joseph John, owner and founder of Anchors End Tattoo in Duluth, has been to Costa Rica, Texas and Wisconsin. He said, "Of all the places I've tattooed, Duluth gets more inspired tattoos than any other place I've worked."

A couple of times a week at Anchors End, artists tattoo Split Rock, big tanker ships and lady slippers (Minnesota's state flower), among other area staples.

The reason? "It's not hard to fall in love with Duluth," he said.

Brian Carlson, owner of V.I.P Tattoo Studio in Duluth, inks a couple Minnesota inspired tattoos a month, including loons, state outlines, a half-sleeve of the Aerial Lift Bridge. "I've done a few Enger Towers," he said.

"People are proud of where they came from," Carlson said. Some are trying to capture a memory and others are trying to honor their history.

Some clients want tattoos inspired by social media, trends or Pinterest, John said. (Think the Tasmanian Devil in the '90s or trinket body art today.) "Sometimes, people just do it to do it," he said.

"I don't think every tattoo should have a meaning," said Rosendahl, of Duluth. "It's your piece of art that's forming you as a character."

Regardless of motive, area businesses cater to this Duluth/Minnesota love with promotions.

Ink Tattoo in Superior included the lake in a spring deal. Benchmark Tattoo owner Kyle Grover said his business markets a Minnesota or local inspired tattoo every year. It's an attractive offer for Duluthians and visitors who want a permanent souvenir.

Of tattoos, Grover added, "It's a true folk art."

For John, his own body art maps a personal timeline of events. "I know where I was and what I was doing for every single one of them," he said.

Sister tattoos

"Lake Superior has been an absolute pillar in my life," wrote Lauren Mostrom.

Growing up near Brighton Beach with her sisters, the lake was a place for her to escape, to play, explore, read, relax and find peace.

So when Mostrom decided to get body art, she knew it would pay tribute to the water. The end result is an outline of Lake Superior with a rose inside — a flower she's been drawn to since childhood.

As far as tattoo placement, "I wanted it somewhere I could see it every day," Mostrom said by phone from Minneapolis. It landed on her inner bicep, where it's accessible to her but not always to others, she said.

Among Mostrom's five tattoos is one she shares with Elizabeth Nagel. It says "the strength of my sister" in Italian on her left shoulder.

"Every one of my sisters has that in a different spot," Mostrom said.

Added Nagel: "We fight, we bicker, we take each other's clothes, but there's so much love there, it's worth etching on my body for the rest of my life."

Another shared tattoo between the native Duluthians is a tribute to lost family.

"I have two magnolia flowers for my two little girls that were stillborn," said Nagel, who chose the flower because it symbolizes purity. "They never experienced any pain, they never suffered. ... To me, they were always in their purest form."

Mostrom commemorates her nieces with a tattoo of their initials and dates. "It's like a little piece of them that gets to come with me," she said.

Nagel also has a tattooed outline of Lake Superior — hers is between her shoulder blades, and it has an anchor of where Duluth is. While she's "landlocked" living in Denver, Nagel said she returns to the Northland every year and cherishes her memories growing up near the water — learning to skip rocks, birthday parties, and later, "spending time down at the beach when life wasn't going as I hoped."

"It's my safe place etched on my back," Nagel said, adding that her body art represents who she is.

For Mostrom, tattoos are a way to express herself, to honor family and: "They're pretty," she said.

'More in the future'

"It feels good," Erickson said of his new ink while standing in Benchmark Tattoo before Rosendahl wrapped his arm.

On Thursday, he drove to Duluth from La Pointe with his friend and coworker Sam Roman, who was getting tattooed by Kyle Grover in a nearby chair. Roman's newest body art is the cover of a Sublime compilation album, he said, reminiscing about a concert of theirs he attended with his dad.

Roman and Grover chatted lightly as music played in overhead speakers in the Chester Park shop.

Asked about future tats, Erickson said he's going to wait a little bit. "There are definitely more in the future." They'll probably represent family or include more boat imagery, he said.

Near Erickson's freshly etched skin are a couple of bars of music. Roman has the same tattoo visible on one of his arms. It's a tune a coworker used to whistle every day, Erickson said. The one-year anniversary of his death is coming up.

"He was a great guy, so it's a little way to honor him."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach her at or (218) 723-5346.

(218) 723-5346