Tattoo art history at the Milwaukee Art MuseumJuly 20th, 2013 |
The Milwaukee Art Museum is showing one of the first — maybe the first — major museum show of tattoo art in America. That’s ironic in a city that banned tattoo parlors for 31 years (1967-1998).
The art of tattoo is not only legal in Milwaukee these days, but burgeoning here and everywhere. For reasons both historical and current, the time is right to show the flash art of Amund Dietzel (1890-1973) in a special exhibition through Oct. 13. Dietzel, the dean of tattoo artists in the drunken-sailor era encompassing World Wars I and II and the Korean War, inked thousands of Great Lakes Naval Station recruits between 1913 and his prohibition-driven retirement in 1967.
Jon Reiter, a Milwaukee tattoo artist, collector of and authority on Dietzel’s art, organized the show. He said that despite the nautical theme of a great many of the flash-art pieces, plenty of civilians — including a fair number of women — surely entered Dietzel’s shop during his long career. In the mid-1950s, with over a decade left to practice, Dietzel told an interviewer that he had marked at least 20,000 customers.
Reiter worked with Milwaukee Art Museum curator David Russick, who designed the show. Russick sought to give the experience of walking into the parlor and being surrounded by hundreds of sample images, known as flash art in the trade. Some are large and elaborate, but most are badges fit for forearm or bicep. Ships, anchors, saucy sailor girls and patriotic imagery involving the navy, flags and eagles abound. Outlaw images associated with motorcycle gangs — skulls, chains, slogans in gothic lettering and such, which took over a good part of tattoo practice in the 1970s and beyond– are nowhere to be found in the dozens of original display frames.
Reiter said that Dietzel was a highly skilled classicist more than an innovator.
“He was always studying, always drawing and painting, always trying to improve,” Reiter said. “He took classes at the Layton School of Art.”
His work shows a deft line and sure sense of volume in the human form. The man could draw. Some of his earliest work is among his most elaborate, in an ornate, Japanese style that he surely encountered during his youthful stint as a merchant seaman.
Reiter found most of the work through online auction sites — he is far from the only collector out there. He’s in contact with Dietzel’s Milwaukee family members, and they lent some newspaper articles, photographs and a leather-bound sample book from Amund’s itinerant days, before he had walls for hanging his wares.
Russick arranged this intimate, jewel-box show into four rooms. An entrance hall features photographs of Dietzel and his shops. It leads to a chain of three rooms, with the flash art concentrated amidships and informational chambers fore and aft. In them, placards, newspaper articles and interviews and Reiter’s two-volume biography and catalog convey the man’s life.
See the show to get the whole story, which goes roughly like this: Dietzel leaves his native Norway, goes to sea at age 14 and plies the world for three years. He takes up hand tattooing as a sailor. After a shipwreck near Quebec, he and a few other crewmen decide to stay in North America. According to Reiter and Russick, Dietzel settled first in New Haven, Conn., where he took some drawing classes at Yale University. In New Haven, friend and fellow tattoo artist William Grimshaw inked Dietzel’s body extensively. Dietzel might have returned the favor. In any case, they toured with carnivals as tattooed men and also plied their trade on midways across the country.
Dietzel was on tour with the Nat Reiss Carnival when it stopped in Milwaukee in 1913. Dietzel, then 23, decided this was the place.
Russick and Reiter think it was a business decision. Reiter has checked the records and found no other tattoo business in Milwaukee at that time. He believes that Dietzel grasped the fact that Great Lakes Naval Training Center was equidistant from Milwaukee and Chicago. In Chicago, he would have had lots of competition. In Milwaukee, he had none.
His business did well over the decades. When the city moved to ban tattoo parlors in the mid-1960s, he testified and argued the case for his profession, on his own behalf and that of the competitors who had taken it up in Milwaukee after him. Amund Dietzel lost his case then, but look at him now — in the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel will be on view through Oct. 13.