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Milwaukee's Tattoo History on Display at Art Museum


The Milwaukee Art Museum planned an exhibit – with Harley-Davidson in mind. When thousands of riders celebrate its 110th anniversary this month, they can see the museum’s first-ever display of tattoo art.

Two Milwaukee men made it possible - both tattoo artists.  One arrived a long time ago – in 1913, Amund Dietzel. It’s his story, the museum chronicles. There are photographs of him, tattooed from neck to ankle.

Chief Curator Brady Roberts says Dietzel was born in Norway and became a merchant shipper. During his time at sea, he started getting tattooed and became good at inking others. Sometimes, they’d appear in circus shows as an oddity.

"There was a whole group of itinerant tattoo artists in the early 20th century who were doing these side shows and tattooing each other and sailors."

It was an accident that Dietzel ended up in Milwaukee. His ship wrecked outside Canada and he stayed, eventually migrating here, for good. Dietzel opened a tattoo and sign shop in downtown Milwaukee and Roberts says soldiers flocked to it – from World War I to the Vietnam War.

“In fact, at the Great Lakes Naval Base, sailors liked to get tattoos – sort of, a right of passage. They would get their tattoos in Chicago or in Milwaukee. Dietzel’s reputation grew because sailors would ask each other, where did you get that tattoo, and they would say, up in Milwaukee, Amund Dietzel. So they used to come, when they were on leave, the buses would come and they would line up outside Dietzel’s shop and he would crank through them.”

Roberts says Dietzel took his business seriously – he even studied art at Yale and MIAD.

Much of the exhibit consists of tattoos he designed and posted on his shop wall. There are hundreds, reflecting many classic 20th century themes – flags, eagles, pin-up girls - images sailors and later bikers, wanted.

“We have photographs that actually show the process, where Dietzel would sit down with someone and shave their arm clean and put this acetate on and then rub the charcoal into it. That that would create the outline for him to then work with the ink and needles."

What makes tattoo art different from other art?

"It’s one thing to be able to paint that way and draw that way, and another thing, to do it on someone’s arm with a needle.”

“You can’t go back and erase. It’s pretty un-describable. It’s intimidating.”

Jon Reiter is the other Milwaukee tattoo artist who made the exhibit possible. He owns Solid State Tattooing Company in Bay View. He says he learned about Dietzel, while reading up on Milwaukee’s tattoo ban in the 1960s. City leaders called tattooing a hepatitis threat and linked with undesirable activities.

“I found some articles when they did the ban in ’67 and his name was attached to all of them. So I knew that he was old guard. And his name was always mentioned as being one of the top influential tattoo artists of early part of the 20th century.”

Reiter collected mounds of information about the old tattoo artist and a lot of his tools. He convinced the museum to show case the story.

“It’s nice to let people know we have a tattoo history and it’s a significant one. He was revered internationally.”

Some people visiting the exhibit are familiar with Dietzel’s work. Amy Misurelli Sorenson is looking at photos of him and people he inked.

Amber Vangalder and Amy Misurelli Sorenson were familiar with Dietzel's work, before visiting it at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“I teach drawing. I’m a draftsman, and so I appreciate illustration and the art of tattooing and I don’t see it being outside the realm of fine art anymore. It’s kind of a subculture. This is the perfect place for it.”

Shop owner John Reiter says he’s thrilled to spot a Dietzel on a person,  for instance, on an older man shopping at Target.

“The guy was tattooed by Dietzel in 1939 – a huge black panther on his arm. I can recognize the age of a tattoo and more times than not, he did them.”

Reiter says interest in tattoo art has climbed steadily, since Milwaukee’s ban lifted, in 1998. It had put Dietzel out of business, the final nine years of his life.

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