Vesterheim gets under your skin

Vesterheim tattoo exhibit

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim

Decorah, Iowa

Image courtesy of Vesterheim

Tattoos have never been more popular. In fact, today, almost one in three Americans has a tattoo. “Tattoo: Identity through Ink,” the exhibit opening June 1 at Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center, will celebrate both the serious and sensational ways body art reverberates in our lives.

For more than 5,000 years, tattoos have been used to document the history of humanity one painful mark at a time. Spanning cultures and continents, tattooing has adorned European nobility and Native Americans, celebrities and Scandinavian sailors, punks and presidents, and seemingly everyone else in between.

Guest curator Lars Krutak, a research associate at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., is a scholar of body art and has authored four books on the subject of indigenous body modification. Krutak also co-curated a similar tattoo exhibition that toured to the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

“Tattoos are so much more than decoration,” Krutak explains. “They are a powerful visual language of the skin, and, like texts, they permanently record memories, life stories, and personal achievements.”

Vesterheim tattoo exhibit

Image courtesy of Vesterheim
Tattoo artists William Grimshaw and Amund Dietzel.

Since it is a Vesterheim exhibit, of course there will be a Scandinavian connection, with celebrated artists like Norwegian Johan Frederik Knudsen and Norwegian-American Amund Dietzel, and the rise of a whole modern Neo-Nordic style of tattooing. But the exhibit will also examine the traditions of body ornamentation in other cultures and our connections to them through the tattoo traditions of indigenous peoples and other communities, past and present.

Its serious side notwithstanding, there’s no denying the exhibit has a hugely entertaining side too. Tattooing has made the journey from edgy to respectable, and Vesterheim will be making the most of it. Exhibit-goers will have the opportunity to design their own tattoos on silicone arms and hold an actual tattoo machine (with no needles, of course) to see how it feels.

The exhibition has given Vesterheim a chance to create new partnerships in the Decorah community. One of those partners is Brock Swenson, owner of Brock’s Valhalla Tattoos in Decorah. Swenson has established himself among the country’s leading and most sought-after tattoo artists, receiving international acclaim and winning some of the industry’s leading awards. In Vesterheim’s exhibit there will be a working tattoo station and, at a few times during the run, artists from Brock’s Valhalla Tattoo will demonstrate their art live. Swenson has also created special artwork for the exhibit, including temporary tattoos.

Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. is launching a new brew, “Valkyrie Strike,” in conjunction with the exhibition. Swenson designed the label, and the beer was brewed with a heritage Norwegian yeast strain called Kevik. A launch event for “Valkyrie Strike” is scheduled for May 18, at Toppling Goliath’s new facility in Decorah. This event will be the first chance to try the new beer and get a sneak preview of the tattoo exhibit. Valkyrie Strike IPA bottles will be sold exclusively at Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. and Vesterheim’s Museum Store for one month. Members of the Toppling Goliath team will be present at the exhibit opening on June 1, and of course Vesterheim will be serving “Valkyrie Strike” then.

The exhibit is sponsored by Nick and Courtney Rowley, with community partners Brock’s Valhalla Tattoo and Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., and will run through April 26, 2020.

With world-class exhibitions and 12 historic buildings in Decorah, Iowa, Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center, showcases historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts, and explores the American immigrant experience. This national treasure is also a center for folk-art education. For more information on the museum’s exhibitions, classes, events, membership opportunities, and ways to donate, check Vesterheim’s website at

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.