Amund Dietzel photo courtesy of Jon Reiter
Jon Reiter, owner of Solid State Tattoo in Bay View, surrounds himself with things he collects and cares about. The photographs of crying babies in his Riverwest bathroom, the 1930s maquette of Milwaukee’s long-ago rejected (for nudity) Maiden of Milwaukee sculpture, stories of travels, mishaps and human serendipity.
The 40-year-old Reiter’s arms are fully sleeved in tattoos, yet he maintains a kempt, almost dapper manner and seems like a man of the old world. He speaks with a dutiful cadence that befits his status as part artist, part historian.
When you work in the tattoo industry, hunched over arms, legs or posteriors, the buzzing needle can’t help but summon the past. In fact, this brotherhood of artisans is like a guild. One learns via apprenticeship, and therefore, legacy remains important.
Reiter was your average Milwaukee-born son of a tavern owner when he studied illustration at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in the early 1990s. A friend introduced him to tattooing, which wasn’t legal then in Milwaukee County (the practice was banned here from 1967 until 1998). And this is how Reiter discovered Milwaukeean Amund Dietzel, one of the country’s most historically renowned tattoo artists.
Until then, no one knew much about Dietzel or why he was revered. Reiter kept seeing references to his name but could find little else. One photo of Dietzel, from the 1950s, repeatedly popped up. “People didn’t know why he was on a pedestal,” Reiter says.
One day, Reiter bought 10 small “flash” drawings (the term for hand-painted tattoo designs) from a friend who found them in Michigan City, Ind. Shortly thereafter, five or six full sheets (pages of designs) surfaced on an online auction site, and they stylistically matched the Indiana drawings. Reiter realized this was Dietzel’s work. He’d seen some of Dietzel’s flash in the background of that 1950s photo. All the drawings had unique rounded corners.
Soon, a cache of Dietzel’s work appeared in California. Tat by tat, the Dietzel story emerged.
Reiter learned that Dietzel was born in Norway in 1891 and joined the merchant seamen at age 14. Eventually, Dietzel’s ship sank in a storm off the Canadian coast, but not before he learned the art of tattooing while at sea. He migrated from Canada to New Haven, Conn., with his needles and a skilled hand. For years, he traveled with carnivals, appearing as a “tattooed man.” Then, at age 23, he set up shop in Milwaukee. His first marriage ended in divorce and a second wife died of tuberculosis. A third marriage to Elsie Koehler lasted 50 years and produced a daughter. A fourth marriage to a family friend took place around 1970 when Dietzel was well into senior citizenship. He died four years later.
Through a small newspaper mention about Dietzel, Reiter found one of his two surviving grandsons in Michigan. He held the ancestral fruits of Reiter’s hunt. Boxes of memorabilia, travel journals and family photos were stored in the grandson’s basement. There were even oil paintings done by Dietzel to decorate the family’s home.
Despite his trade’s vagabond tendencies, despite its associations with carnivals, sailors and prisoners, Dietzel wore a suit and tie to work. Beneath that was his other suit – his “all-over job,” or full-body tattoo.
An image from June 1913 shows him at work wearing a vest and tie, his white shirtsleeves rolled up. Sheets of round-cornered, trademark Dietzel flash fill the walls along with sports banners. In two other images from 1914, a young Dietzel poses with his shirt off. A tapestry of swirling images covers his body. Three undulating horse heads dominate his chest, a setting sun braced by mermaids limn his back. At 23, he had as many tales as his body could hold.
It wasn’t enough for Reiter to piece together Dietzel’s story and collect the work, so he wrote two books. These Old Blue Arms: The life and work of Amund Dietzel, 2010, is half biography and half photos of Dietzel’s designs. Volume Two, published the next year, includes more Dietzel flash, family photos and a broader historic context.
With perseverance, Reiter enticed the Milwaukee Art Museum to mount an exhibition of Dietzel’s work. This represents the first solo Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit for a tattoo artist, a homecoming for the man who, Reiter says, was “clearly comfortable in his own beautifully decorated skin.”