Kuno uses his barber creativity and talent to bring smiles to his customers

By Ken Luchterhand

Kuno Starnes has been through a lot in his life. He’s faced a lot of adversity, including severe injury, an addiction to drugs, and jail time. To escape all those negative incidents and come out on top took a lot of willpower and determination.
Opening his own barbershop business, Kuno is now celebrating a new life.
“I’m so happy. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. It’s a dream finally become a reality,” he said.
Although he has achieved a lot with his new business, it didn’t come without help from his family. One of those people was his sister, Brenda Neff, who provided a lot of encouragement and suggestions.
“It’s been a long time in coming,” Brenda said.
He had planned to open his business on July 1, but decided to get an earlier start to get his business noticed by taking in a few haircuts at the annual Lake Martha Days. The number of customers he served was incredible and much more than he expected.
“Now I have to get ready for being open every day,” he said.
Kuno is the son of the Rev. Sam Starnes and Alberta Rainbow Whitehorse Starnes, and grandson of Ralph and Annie Greencrow Whitehorse.
His father is a pastor and Kuno had an upbringing that involved moving a lot, about every four years, creating situations where friendships and education were being interrupted. He remembers as a young child growing up in Bradley, Illinois, but then moving to Ohio. After another four years, they moved to Oklahoma, then back again to Ohio.
The second time he lived in Ohio, Kuno fell in love, got married and started a family.
While living in Toledo, he worked at construction for 9 years, mostly remodeling interior rooms.
His son Gavin was born in 1997 and they had Devin in 2002. Later, his daughter, Danica, was born in 2006.
Then, as time was passing, he realized he wanted to be closer to his parents, so he and his family moved to the Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, area, so his children would know their grandparents.
He started his own construction business and often was subcontracted by large construction companies, such as Connery Fedler. He kept his company going until 2009 when an accident began a downward slide that would plague him for years.
He was working on a roof when the structure gave way, plummeting him through broken boards and broke his ribs, along with numerous other internal injuries.
During his recovery, he was using opiates as painkillers, to which he soon became addicted. The craving was so strong that, once the doctor discontinued the medications, Kuno sought out the substances. He found opiates from people on the street and even turned to heroin to fulfill his needs.
It was during this time that he was caught by law enforcement. The court ordered him to prison and he spent five years behind bars.
That experience was both a curse and a blessing. It was a curse that he was doing something illegal and had to be removed from his family and the rest of society. It was a blessing because he was given a chance to straighten out his life, removing his addiction, and had the chance to learn a new skill that would carry him forward.
“It began with a simple request. One of the inmates asked if I would cut his hair because he had a court appearance and there wasn’t a barber available,” he said. “That one inmate grew into many more to the point they asked if I would become the barber for the Dane County Jail. They needed a barber. I accepted the job and cut hair for five to 10 people a day.”
He continued to serve as the barber for the remainder of his stay, which was four years and 10 months.
“Before I got out on November 15, I had applied to Chippewa Valley Technical College for the cosmetology course,” he said. “I started on January 16.”
Kuno received his cosmetology license in January 2015 and then began as a barber with Elite Sports Barbershop in the Oakwood Mall, Eau Claire.
While working there for a year and a half, many Ho-Chunk members would make the trek to Eau Claire to get their haircut. He even carved a feather in one young man’s hair and a lightning bolt in another.
Although he had healed from his injury received from falling through the roof, he would be tested again when he was involved in two more accidents.
On June 17, 2017, he was involved in a motorcycle accident, resulting in both his arms being broken. About a month after that accident, he was driving his car when he swerved to avoid a deer and hit the ditch. His arms still in casts, he had difficulty getting out of the car and was in quite a lot of pain. He had broken his back and an ankle in the accident. He noticed that the car was smoking and burst into flames. Despite his pain and immobility, Kuno gathered whatever strength he had left and crawled to safety just before the car was totally engulfed in flames.
He’s had surgery on his back and on his ankle, staying away from pain medications. The lessons he learned have put him in the right place and mindset.
“I’ve dedicated my life to being a better person,” Kuno said.
Having sustained severe head injuries, he began to hear voices, become paranoid, and developed an acute sensitivity to the sun.
“I thought there was a conspiracy against me,” he said. Rather than turn back to painkillers, Kuno was determined to make it through his trials by staying on the right path.
It was six weeks before he could cut hair again.
“It was a struggle. Too many distractions. I had to keep telling myself ‘Train your brain to focus.’”
Slowly but surely, he healed, the voices went away, and he began to feel right with the world once again.
With his developed skill and encouragement from his family, Kuno began looking for an opportunity to begin his own barbershop.
As he looked for a location for his business, he came across the perfect place that was available. It is on Seventh Street, which is Osseo’s own form of Main Street. A former dentist office, it offered the perfect layout for a barbershop.
One of the style accents he learned at Elite Sports Barbershop is to use a rollaway toolbox to keep his scissors and other equipment. With his new business, Kuno cleaned up his high school toolbox and placed it behind the chair and under the mirrors. He used his talents of remodeling to get the facility ready for his business, using a former breakfast bar that was removed when remodeling his sister’s house.
When he has a gap in customers, he put chairs out on the sidewalk, with the backs up against the building, so he and other people can sit, talk, and wave to friends going by.
“I wanted the old style hometown feel,” he said. “I’m lucky to get this spot. Location helps – right across from the Norske Nook. I’ll get 10 to 15 percent of my business from out-of-state people who are eating at the restaurant. I’ve had people from places like Kentucky and North Carolina already.”
Since he started his business, he has been asked if he needed any additional barbers to join his business. He is considering it, but first needs to gauge the number of customers. He figures he would need at least 10 haircuts a day to be able to justify hiring someone.
“I was told there hasn’t been a male barber in this town for 15 years. People are excited,” Kuno said.
His parents helped him with the rent and his father bought the barber pole and the flag, all to help him get on his feet with his new business.
“I can’t believe the welcome I’ve gotten,” he said. He had business cards printed and he’s gone through 250 cards in one week.
“Everything is on the right path,” Kuno said. “I don’t have voices anymore and the sun doesn’t bother me. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
He offers a $2 discount for tribal members and veterans.
Someday he hopes to expand his business and perhaps even develop a chain of barbershops, of which he hopes to name “Kustom Kutz.”
Cutting hair isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. It takes a skillful hand and the insight to know what the haircut will look like when it is all done.
He is an artist, creating many oil paintings on canvas and native designs that adorn his house. Last April, he created a cross that is displayed at his father’s church, the Church of the Nazarene in Strum.
To make an appointment, call (715) 797-4382 or by an appointment app, book.thecut.co/kutzbykuno.
He likes to use his creative spirit in his hair styling and, more importantly, when he is done giving haircuts, he likes to see his customers walk out the door with smiles on their faces.
“To see people happy with what I do is very gratifying,” he said.