Shipwrecked sailor, traveling carnival freak, family man, gentleman entrepreneur and above all a pioneering master tattooer; Amund Dietzel lived a life as colorful as any of his designs.
Jon Reiter, a tattoo artist and owner of Solid State Tattoo, 2660 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., fleshes out the story of Dietzel in his authorial debut "These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel."
The book is a colorful blend of historical photographs, Dietzel's tattoo designs and artwork, and a thoroughly researched account of how Dietzel made his way to Milwaukee and into the American tattoo lore.
"He was put on a pedestal and put in the category of being one of the best, but that's all they would ever say. Anytime his name appeared in any other book they never said why. They never gave any examples of his work. I just wanted to know more," Reiter said.
Reiter set about tracking down Dietzel's tattoo flash (the art typically displayed on the walls of tattoo parlors for customers to peruse), family members and newspaper clippings as he pieced together the story of the well-respected tattoo artist.
"I started realizing right away that almost all the information out there up to this point was wrong," said Reiter. "That was part of the mission was to get it all squared away and get it all right. Which is important. Not a lot of people do that. They just go straight to these Web sites and take all that as truth."
The son of a printmaker, Dietzel started life working on shipping boats where he would first dabble in tattooing. Following his second ship wreck he made a go at tattooing professionally, covering himself with tattoos and touring with carnival sideshows as the tattooed man which was a common way of supplementing income for tattoo artists.
"Running around with circuses and carnivals in the slow season was pretty common. If you got into tattooing back then that's what you did," Reiter said.
In Milwaukee Dietzel buffered the tattoo work he'd mostly do for sailors training and working on Lake Michigan with a steady sign painting business. Despite a constant barrage of competition, Dietzel would remain the city's preeminent tattoo artist until the city ban on the practice in the late '60s essentially forced him into retirement.
"There are still a lot of guys around Milwaukee that have his tattoos who got tattooed in the late '50s or early '60s. You still see these guys and you can tell the difference. You can still tell what they are. You see a lot of guys with old tattoos and it's just a big blob. I see guys with his tattoos with banners in them and you can still read it," Reiter said.
Reiter's account of Dietzel is a fascinating if not slightly academic look at immigrant life in the early 20th century and the birth of tattooing in Milwaukee. His tale of Dietzel's storied life and career is supplemented by dozens of his vividly colored tattoo designs, and living canvases which make for an eye popping read.
Reiter has almost sold out of the hardbound first pressing, which he self published and has been selling predominantly through Facebook and tattoo equipment distributors as well as locally at Boswell Book Company and Woodland Pattern Book Center.
Reiter says a second book on Dietzel is in the works with more stories from people who met him, more information on his craftsmanship, additional art and elaboration on his relationships with his contemporaries.
As a tattoo artist Reiter said he gained a deep admiration for the consistency and professionalism Dietzel displayed in his lengthy career.
"You look at a lot of tattooers and as their career got lengthy their work suffered. He did things one way and stuck with it. His artwork hardly changed from 1907 to 1967 when he stopped," Reiter said.