Book Review "These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel"
I'll begin simply by saying that These Old Blue Arms: The Life & Work of Amund Dietzel is a bookshelf mandate for lovers of tattoo art and culture. Written by Jon Reiter of Solid State Tattoo in Milwaukee, it not only captures a legend but the richness of tattoo Americana.
Last month, Patrick posted a preview of the book, and over vacation, I made it my essential reading -- although not beach reading as I didn't want to risk damaging the 200-page hardcover. While I devoured the entire book in just a few hours, its resonance is long lasting. It is in one volume a book of history, artistic reference, and tattoo lore as well as a meticulously researched biography.
As Fred Stonehouse says in the Foreword, Jon Reiter has made it his mission to "clarify much of the shadowy information" surrounding Dietzel. Reiter cites the Norwegian National Archives to early US newspapers to direct quotes from Dietzel's grandson to paint a picture of a man deemed "one of the last true gentleman tattooers."
The book begins with a short introduction to Dietzel's family life, illustrated by photos from the late 1800s and beyond. We learn that he went to sea at the age of 14 and got his first tattoo--an anchor on his hand--when he docked in Southern Wales in 1907. It was aboard the Augusta later that year when he started his 60+year tattoo career with "six needles bound with cotton and set in a block of wood."
More than tattoo facts, the book tells stories of alleged ship wrecks, war time tattoo culture, and carny life--where Dietzel spent a good portion of his career tattooing and as a "Tattooed Man" sideshow performer. It also shows Dietzel as an artist constantly seeking to refine his craft, noting that he took art classes at Yale and elsewhere at various times in his life. His artistry is ever-present in the hand-painted flash spreads--these pages alone are worth buying the book. [Reiter also gives some background on the root of the word flash, which is fantastic.]
A cast of other characters populate the book like William Grimshaw, Thomas Riley, Cliff Raven, Phil Sparrow, Gib "Tatts" Thomas, and Kenneth "Shaky Jake" Jacobs--a villain who tries to put others out of business through badmouthing and even setting up crooked cops outside of competitors' shops to steer away would-be clients. These great stories never detract from Dietzel's work, which attracted tattoo collectors from all over the world to his Milwaukee studios even before tattoo magazines, the Internet and general acceptance of the art, as Reiter notes.
Dietzel retired in 1967 when Milwaukee banned tattooing. He and Tatts, at the ages of 75 and 65, put up a fight at City Council meetings, but they were largely alone in doing so. In 1974, Dietzel died of leukemia, three weeks before his 83rd birthday. His life is illuminated and honored in this excellent book.
You can order it here for $50 plus shipping.
A second installment is in the works and I'll have more on that as it progresses.