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Monday, Aug. 12, 2013

The Human Body as a Canvas

Dietzel’s Flash Art

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The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel” celebrates a medium that thrives in today’s culture. One of the 20th century’s master tattoo artists, Dietzel worked in Milwaukee until his death in 1974, imprinting the human form with meticulous drawings. While often working double time painting signs to pay the family bills, Dietzel defined tattoo art through his ability as a colorist and draftsman.

This particular exhibition recognizes Dietzel’s contributions through newspaper clippings and photographs; the gallery resembles a tattoo parlor with the gallery walls hung with his personal flash art—the watercolor and ink drawings a customer would admire and choose to have permanently placed on his or her body.

Flash art was the second step in the tattoo process. Pencil sketches were drawn first and then painted on paper as colored “flash art” before their duplication in an acetate stencil used to electrically tattoo the design on the body. The exhibit’s Sheets 27 and 41 exemplify the nostalgic signs customers often favored: flags, military insignias, pinup girls, hearts, flowers and the word dear to those in war, “Mother.”

Dietzel’s Tattoo Trunk (1927) also survives. Painted black, gold, pink and silver, the Art Deco carrying case for his delicate tools was handcrafted from metal and wood pierced with Dietzel’s initials. Personal photographs included in the exhibition show a smiling portrait of the mature Dietzel, illustrating that the artist previously worked at carnivals as the “Tattoo Man,” his own skin literally covered with intricate designs. 

The Milwaukee Art Museum presents “Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel” through Oct. 13 to complement the 110th Anniversary Celebration for Harley-Davidson. Temporary tattoos retrieved from Dietzel’s vintage flash art may be purchased in the Milwaukee Art Museum gift shop.

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