Milwaukee Art Museum adds tattoos to its summer collection

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:42 am

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s latest exhibit draws visitors into the art of tattooing with hundreds of tattoo designs inked by Milwaukee tattoo icon Amund Dietzel, who perfected his style over the course of about 60 years.


“Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel” brings to light the life of an immigrant and entrepreneur who launched his career as a tattoo artist in traveling carnivals before making Milwaukee his canvas.

Dietzel, a native of Norway, encountered Milwaukee in 1913 while traveling with the Nat Reiss Shows and found a void in tattooing he wanted to fill.

While Dietzel’s style didn’t deviate from the classic tattoo images of the 20th century, he became famous for the quality of his ink work.

“It wasn’t outside of what the norm was back then,” said Jon Reiter, owner of Milwaukee-based Solid State Tattoo and guest curator of the new exhibit. “There were kind of stock images that were expected to be there when you went into a tattoo shop. (Tattoo artists) were all kind of doing the same thing. (Dietzel) was known for doing a nicer tattoo than a lot of people.”

Most of the exhibit’s material belongs to Reiter, a longtime researcher and collector of Dietzel’s original work. Reiter has been a tattoo artist for 16 years and said he latched onto Dietzel’s story from the very beginning.

In 2010, Reiter published a two-volume catalogue of Dietzel’s artwork that he titled “These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel.”

According to Reiter, Dietzel is one of the top 10 most important tattoo artists of his time.

“He did this for 60 years day in and day out,” Reiter said. “He worked 10 (or) 12 hour days seven days a week and he (worked) into his seventies. He loved what he did and he respected it, and he should be praised for that.”

Throughout his career in Milwaukee, Dietzel worked at seven different tattoo parlors, none of which exist today. He also worked as a sign painter to help make ends meet and further practiced his art by drawing and painting dozens of decorative pieces for friends and family, many featuring landscapes, seascapes or birds.

By the 1950s, he claimed he had tattooed at least 20,000 people. He, himself, was covered in tattoos.

In 1967, Dietzel officially retired from tattooing at the age of 76. A ban outlawing the practice of tattooing in Milwaukee city limits prompted his swift exit from the field. The ban, implemented in July 1967, wasn’t lifted until 1998, 24 years after Dietzel’s death.

Reiter hopes the new exhibit illuminates Milwaukee’s extensive tattoo history, which was largely forgotten over the course of the citywide ban.

“It’s nice to know that Milwaukee does have a history,” Reiter said. “It lost its history basically during that ban. It was kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

“Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel,” also curated by museum exhibition designer David Russick, will be available for viewing until Oct. 13. For more information about the museum and its exhibits, visit

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