Art Curatorial Exhibitions

Telling Tattoos: Harold Wright Remembers Amund Dietzel

Harold Wright with Amund Dietzel tattoos. Photo by the author.
Harold Wright with Amund Dietzel tattoos. Photo by the author.

Because he was a tattoo artist, Amund Dietzel’s most valuable works will eventually disappear by nature of his canvas.  The Museum’s Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel exhibits photographs, equipment and designs of Dietzel’s work. In this interview, Harold Wright, a prep cook for the Museum’s own Café Calatrava, adds his own personal remembrances, and several Amund Dietzel tattoos in the flesh.

Wright was personally inked by Deitzel in his tattoo parlor. Here he recounts meeting Dietzel at the age of eighteen following the recommendation of his older brother, after which Wright and Dietzel developed a friendship that spanned many years – not to mention six tattoos.

Read on to find Wright’s story in his own voice.

The following is a transcription of conversation with Harold Wright, as told to Curatorial Intern Sarah Rabinowe on July 23, 2013.

Well, the first [tattoo] I got in 1960 when I was eighteen, and the second one shortly after. Every other year I got a tattoo [until Dietzel retired when tattooing was banned in Milwaukee in 1967] and I had it done by Dietzel.

Harold Wright exhibits his Amund Dietzel tattoos in Cafe Calatrava. Photo by the author.
Harold Wright exhibits his Amund Dietzel tattoos in Cafe Calatrava. Photo by the author.

The first time I met Dietzel was when my brother went down there and got all of his and then he told me about Dietzel and where I could get them where it wouldn’t be so painful and hurt as much… He had them all up and down him arm. He just came home one day and said, “Hey man, look at my tattoo.” My brother was born in 1936… I was born in 1942.  He was in the 32nd Infantry, the National Guard Division. He got a lot of name tattoos, “Mom” and “Dad,” and pictures of eagles and love birds, and then he had a skunk that says, “Nobody Loves Me,” and the skunk was holding a flower…

Wright’s Six Tattoos

Harold Wright's Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.
Harold Wright’s Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.

So I said OK and went down to [Dietzel] and the first one I got was the eagle. The second one was “Cheri,” a girl I used to go with. This he did free-hand, because there were no stencils for the names. Only three were stenciled. This one’s [motioning to his arm] a fly, and that’s “JoEllen,” and that’s “Charlotte”…see, there was coloring in here [indicating the fly tattoo at right] but it fades after so many years and all runs together.

Dietzel’s Patriotic Tattoos

I was in the infantry, classified 1A, so they called me in and I didn’t have a choice. Back then, you couldn’t have a tattoo when you went into the military; after you got out you could have them. But I mean, if you’ve got short sleeves on, you can’t hide them, unless you’ve got them in a place that doesn’t show. They don’t let you carry the big ones, I wanted to get a battleship on my chest but I couldn’t do that because it was too big. If you were in and then you got one, they could yell at you because that wasn’t up to military standard–they went by the book and didn’t mess around.

Dietzel’s Process

What he does is, he shaves the arm, then he puts charcoal on the stencil and makes an imprint. He takes it off and uses the needle to go around the outline of it… then he wipes it all off because by then all the details of it are already in there. He wipes everything off because you do bleed, he is cutting your skin. Then he adds the coloring. We use the same needles that he used back then because [he used] the throw-away needles that go to the gun.  [Ed. Note: In fact, one of the foremost tattoo guns today is called “Dietzel Tattoo Machine”!]

The thing about Dietzel is he was nice; if you were scared or something he would talk to you while he was doing it, so you would be more relaxed. Once you hear that needle go “buzzzzzz,” then you would jump because you could hear that, the humming of the needle. If you were nervous he would ask if you were scared, and if you said “yeah,” he would help you relax and talk to you… trying to make you laugh so you wouldn’t tighten up. We talked about everything; I asked him how he liked Milwaukee and he says, “It’s ok.” He said when he first got here, he didn’t know whether he’d like it or not. I don’t know where he came from… all I know is that he was here by the 1940s… I didn’t know how early he came here, I was a young whippersnapper.  I got my tattoos from him until he closed.

Harold Wright's Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.
Harold Wright’s Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.

A Lifetime Investment

Dietzel screwed up here [pointing to the “Charlotte” tattoo at left], so he didn’t charge me for it… he went a little bit over the line.  The little ones were only $1.75, but the bigger ones were more–$4.00, $5.00, $48.00 for a big one on the back or chest.  Back then when I was working it wasn’t much money, I was making $1.75 per hour, so I would have to save up my money in order to get a tattoo… I would shovel snow, or work at a small grocery store… and do odd jobs.

Two Minutes, Two Dollars

A couple minutes, “zip zip zip,” and he’s done… just write it on and that’s that. The eagle took the longest because of the detail… but the coloring was easy… It didn’t look like this [motioning to his eagle tattoo shown below]. All tattoos fade and the bright colors go because the dark colors close-in on them. Eventually I’ll have one big ink spot here because you can see how they’re all starting to blend in and come together.

Going to Paul’s

Paul’s was the second tattoo shop that opened downtown on 6th and Wisconsin… He was right next door to the restaurant called the Hickory Way.  I went in there because I wanted to see what kind of tattoos he had and how good he was, you know. So I asked other people and they said, “He’s OK, but if you want a good tattoo, go to Dietzel’s.”

Harold Wright's Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.
Harold Wright’s Amund Dietzel tattoo. Photo by the author.

Prohibition – The Milwaukee Tattoo Ban of 1967

In a way I thought it was correct, because everybody was getting hepatitis and infection. People were getting sick and all of that, because they [the tattoo artists] weren’t sterilizing their needles and then use them on somebody else… people were getting swollen arms and everything from that.  But Dietzel would take alcohol and rub the needle and he would make sure there was no blood and no skin on the needle. If there was, he would take that out and throw it away… He would just toss it away and put a new one in [to his tattoo gun].  He had several guns… he would keep his trunk with his guns right by his chair and he would first mix the ink, then he would grab a gun and say, “Sit down, shut up, and give me your arm.” He’s… the father of tattoos here in Milwaukee.

Have you visited Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel yet?

Only once… A lot of memories were brought back by seeing the tattoos and the little building he was in… it was a small parlor; it wasn’t a huge big parlor. If you got four people in there you could hardly move. There are a lot of tattoos they [the curators] didn’t put up that he had. He had a ton of tattoos, all kinds under the sun.

Is there a particular aspect of the exhibition that struck you?

When I saw the older pictures of Dietzel it brought back memories. He was nice to talk to and every time I went past I would stop in and say hi and joke with him…

You would pick out the [design] you wanted on the wall and then he would go in the box and get the stencil that had that tattoo on it and sit you down. If you had a picture from a magazine or something that you wanted, but he didn’t have it, he would make a stencil of that and put it on you. Then he would destroy it because that was just yours… the personal ones didn’t cost any more.

What do you think when Dietzel is described as one of the pioneers of the “Americana” tattoo style?

I think it’s correct because I’ve talked to a lot of tattoo artists… and they said if it wasn’t for Dietzel, they wouldn’t be into the business as they are now.

[We] ought to give Dietzel more credit because he is actually a founding father of tattoos.

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Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Dietzel is at the Milwaukee Art Museum from July 3 through October 13, 2013.  For more information, please click here.

Tattoo draws exclusively from the Solid State Tattoo Collection, courtesy of Jon Reiter.  For additional details on Amund Dietzel, Reiter has published two texts on the subject entitled, “These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, Volumes 1 and 2.”

Special thanks to fellow Curatorial Intern, Anneliese Verhoeven for her assistance in the production of this week’s article.

Sarah Rabinowe is a summer Curatorial Intern at the Museum.  Sarah is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, and this autumn she will be moving to England to complete her Masters degree in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford.

One reply on “Telling Tattoos: Harold Wright Remembers Amund Dietzel”

There was no Hepatits out break . The ban was based on the moral tone of the era. Hepatits was used as a scare tactic. The tattooing of Milwaukee Judge’s son is more likely the reason according to my research. The ban of tattooing is never ever a good thing. Nor is mandatory tattooing. The exhibit was amazing. Milwaukee is lucky to have Jon Reiter maintaining the tradition. Dean Schubert

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