Known as the “Master in Milwaukee”, Amund Dietzel was born in Kristiania, Norway, in 1891. When he began in 1907, tattooing 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.
Dietzel began his career as a sailor, before settling in the US, and learned the art of hand tattooing during those early sailor years. 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. In 1907 Dietzel moved to America, he traded his hand tools for an electric tattoo machine and went to work. He 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. As with other tattooists of his era, Dietzel worked in many cities, but in 1916 he made the move to Milwaukee and decided to make the city his home. He opened a shop at 207 Third Street and soon he became 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. When the Great War ended in 1918, Dietzel began painting signs and designing ads for local businesses to supplement his tattooing income. In 1930 he opened a new studio at 948 Plankinton avenue in Milwaukee. It was here that Dietzel had the space to gear up for the war time business that was heading his way: during World War II, the Plankinton location had four tattooists (including Dietzel) working 12 hour shifts.
Milwaukee got caught up in the legislation against tattooing, and in 1967 outlawed tattooing within the city limits. Dietzel’s comment was: “At least it took the city fifty-one years to find out it doesn’t want me. Milwaukee used to be a very nice town”. 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 1967, when the Milwaukee Common Council banned tattooing in the city. Dietzel died of leukemia on February 9, 1974. The tattoo historian Jon Reiter has written These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, a biography about Milwaukee’s famed tattoo artist.