Celebrating Milwaukee's own Rembrandt of the rind
Since July 3, a small corner of the contemporary galleries at Milwaukee Art Museum have been home to "Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel." And with walls covered in the kind of catalog-of-wares one sees posted in tattoo parlors around the globe, this section of the museum has become not only a tribute, but something of a recreation of the Milwaukee tattoo joints Dietzel ran for half the 20th century.
The show, curated by David Russick, with guest curator and Bay View tattoo artist Jon Reiter, traces the story of Norwegian-born Dietzel, who arrived in Milwaukee in 1913, after having been shipwrecked in Canada and traveling as a carnival sideshow and itinerant tattoo artist.
Finding no one tattooing here, the man a newspaper dubbed the "Rembrandt of the rind" saw an opportunity and set up shop in a number of Downtown locations over the years – all of which have long since been razed – including sharing space, as was common, with a sign painter.
"This exhibition is a great celebration of a Milwaukee icon, so what better time to have it on view than during a time when we celebrate 110 years of another great Milwaukee icon, Harley-Davidson," says Daniel Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. "I am excited to expand the Museum's boundaries to include tattoo art in our galleries."
The impressive collection of newspaper clippings, artefacts, photographs and, above all, frames full of Dietzel's sample "flash," was amassed by Reiter, who has written two books on Dietzel.
The flash is especially compelling. As MAM curator Brady Roberts says, the tattoo samples transport the viewer back to another time and place.
"This gives you the experience of being in the parlor and thinking, 'OK, which one am I going to get,'" he says.
What makes the flash impressive, says Reiter, is not to much the subject matter and the designs – which were pretty commonplace in their day – but Dietzel's skill in drawing and executing them.
Also, Dietzel was influential. Working on a lot of sailors and soldiers, the artist could perfect this masculine style of tattoo, laden with lovely lounging ladies, hearts dedicated to distant mothers and stars and stripes-laced designs of all kinds. He helped define and keep alive what is now seen as the traditional American tattoo.
What I found interesting was the case showing Dietzel's non-skin art. Dietzel, who apparently took art classes at Yale during a stint in Connecticut, also studied at the Layton School of Art during his more than 50 years in Milwaukee. He died here in 1974.
The landscape and bird paintings on view stand in stark contrast to his flash. This man who spent a lifetime creating skin art full of pin-up girls, Marine Corps logos and masculine bald eagles for commerce, in his leisure, made paintings that, for their tame subject matter and soft edges, look a bit like vintage wrapping paper.
The show is the first skin art exhibition ever at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Dietzel's story, says Roberts, was just too good and too relevant to ignore.
"It's someone that most of us didn't know. Most of my staff is not inked, we don't know much about tattoos but when we looked at the material it was really compelling and beautiful and then it turns into this whole Milwaukee story and not just Milwaukee," he says.
"This is someone that is nationally known for keeping tattooing alive, classic tattoo art alive. And it's also kind of an American history story because tattooing was very popular during wartime and Amund Dietzel is doing great business during World War I and World War II and Korea and Vietnam up until 1967 when tattooing is banned in Milwaukee."
The exhibition is small, but interesting and well-organized. There's an emphasis, of course, on the flash and that's the point, says Russick, who was invited by Roberts to curate the show.
"I wanted to keep it very visual and not real chatty," says Russick. "We wanted it to be about the art, about the visuals."
"Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel" runs through Oct. 13.
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