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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Amund Dietzel: Milwaukee’s Tattooing Legend

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Milwaukee has been home to a number of trailblazing artists, but none of them walked the line between obscurity and worldwide acclaim that Amund Dietzel did. When he began tattooing in 1907 it was an art form that existed on the periphery of mainstream culture, the stuff of carnival sideshows. But within that realm, Dietzel became a legend.

Because of its place on the fringe of society, early tattoo history wasn’t well documented, and, as a result, exaggeration and misinformation abound. Local tattoo historian and artist Jon Reiter sifted through the lore and, after an exhaustive period of research, wrote These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, an exceptional biography about Milwaukee’s famed tattoo artist.

According to Reiter, Dietzel was born in Kristiania, Norway, in 1891. After his father’s death, Dietzel joined one of Norway’s merchant fleets at the age of 14. For sailors, tattoos—and the area of the body on which they are placed—carry different meanings. For some, the images inked beneath the skin symbolize an important milestone, such as crossing the equator, traveling a certain number of nautical miles, or surviving a shipwreck. They may simply be decorative, but often they have spiritual significance or serve as a souvenir from various ports of call. Dietzel got his first tattoo—an anchor on his left hand between his thumb and forefinger—when the first ship he was assigned, a three-masted, square-rigged ship called Sarepta, made port in Swansea, Wales.

When Dietzel joined the Augusta, a rig that sailed lumber across the Atlantic between Canada and England, he used what was typically a three-week journey to hone a new skill: tattooing. He created a set of hand tools that consisted of six needles bound with cotton set in a block of wood, and set to work on his willing shipmates. According to Reiter, “Amund’s interest in art and uncanny drawing ability made him the best candidate on board.”

In July 1907, just off the coast of Quebec, the Augusta experienced irreparable damage to the hull. Dietzel, now 17, and a few other members of the crew decided to stay and work in the lumberyards. Two months later, Dietzel moved to America and settled in New Haven, Conn. He traded his hand tools for an electric tattoo machine and went to work. Dietzel became close friends with an English immigrant named William Grimshaw, who brought with him “a delicate style and touch synonymous with British tattooers for which Amund would later become revered.” The pair worked on one another, and soon Dietzel was covered from neck to ankles in ink.

Dietzel and Grimshaw began traveling with carnivals as tattooed men, appearing in sideshows, selling novelty photographs of themselves and tattooing between shows. While on the road, Dietzel took to Milwaukee, and decided to make the city his home when he was 23. He set up a shop next to the newly built Hotel Wisconsin and soon had a reputation as the region’s premier tattoo artist.

The outbreak of World War I brought Dietzel an influx of sailors and Marines seeking tattoos before they left for battle. He ran tattoo shops at 207 and later 224 N. Third St., bringing in renowned tattoo artists to help him handle the wartime rush. When the Great War ended in 1918, Dietzel moved his shop a few doors down, to 211 N. Third St., where he shared space with a sign painter. Dietzel began painting signs and designing ads for local businesses to supplement his tattooing income. In 1930 Dietzel opened a new studio at 948 Plankinton Ave. As the United States geared up for another war, sailors arrived in droves from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. During the war’s peak, Dietzel was tattooing 10 to 12 customers a day.

After 27 years on Plankinton Avenue, Dietzel moved to a new location at 612 N. Fifth St., but the spot didn’t generate as much foot traffic as he had hoped, so Dietzel moved again in 1963 to 304 Wells St., one block from the USO. That year, Chicago raised its minimum age of consent for tattooing from 18 to 21, which directed a slew of tattoo business to Milwaukee.

In 1964, at the age of 73, Dietzel sold his tattoo shop to his friend, Gib “Tatts” Thomas. The two worked together in the studio until the Milwaukee Common Council banned tattooing in the city effective July 1, 1967. Dietzel died of leukemia on Feb. 9, 1974, and is buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park.
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