By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 11, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Musician on the local music scene.

Successful Bob Dylan impersonator.


Chinese medicine practitioner.

Drug smuggler.

Mexican prison torture survivor.

Milwaukee native Dr. Art Rapkin can claim all these and more, which not only explains why he decided to put pen to paper to share his life story, but why that book runs to 600 pages.

“Poison for Rats: Six Kilos That Changed Everything,” written by Rapkin with Alec Banks – published in a hefty illustrated paperback by Beyond The Streets Publishing – is a wild ride through all of this stuff.

We caught up with Rapkin to ask him about growing up in Milwaukee, his incredible range of experiences in life and about writing his autobiography.

OnMilwaukee: Growing up in Milwaukee, you attended a few high schools; any lasting impressions of any of them?

Art Rapkin: Yes. There was Nicolet High School, which (is) in the North Shore area of Milwaukee, and my impression was that was the school of children of well-educated professionals, many of whom were of the Jewish faith. It was a snobby school, but since I came from the city, I didn't really feel I fit in with other kids who cared about what type of blue jeans you were wearing.

Then there (is) a school in the city called Rufus King, which was near where we had moved from, and that was a very good experience as far as the mixture, the culture there, the mixture, I think made it a much more comfortable place. There's no snobby stuff.

Then there was a school called John Marshall, which again (is) in the City of Milwaukee, and it was the same type of thing. It was more comfortable. There was a mixture of all kinds of kids.

You got sent there after having problems in the other two. Was that your last high school?

I was a special needs kid, I believe, and there was no such thing as special needs in those days. So teachers who had overloaded classrooms, if you weren't someone who fell in line, if you asked the wrong questions, if you acted out at all, you were just sent into the principal's office.

But I did things like I smoked cigarettes because when I grew up smoking at 15 years old wasn't unusual, but in the North Shore, when I went to this Nicolet, I attended a football game the first week of school, and the guy in front of me was the principal, and I was smoking. And he turns around and says, "What's your name? Be in my office on Monday. You're expelled."

When the Beatles and the Stones came out and kids tried to replicate the look. If your hair touched your eyebrows and you didn't cut your hair, you were expelled. So of course, my hair touched my eyebrows because I wanted a pompadour to look like James Brown. So I got expelled, and then you're labeled a bad kid, and that's where the bad boy thing started with my parents being called. They expel you, they suspend you several times before they, I guess expel you permanently, and that's when you would switch schools.

Then I went to the next school and the next school, the principal looked at me and made some anti-Semitic comments, because I came from the school on the North Shore.

John Marshall was my last stop. It was a nice school. It's just that I was not interested in anything that the school had to offer really. And I was more interested in what the street had.

Is that why you found the Big Boy on West Capitol Drive more interesting than school?

Everybody in there was older than me, siding guys that were, if I was 16, they were at least 30, 35, even 40, the ticket scalpers and the garment manufacturers. And there was hustlers and salespeople.

The thing that was attractive to me was they all were interesting characters and they made their own way. They weren't on a salary. These people didn't work at JC Penney managing the men's clothing department. They didn't work at Sears and Roebuck. They went out there and on their own efforts were able to generate making a living. And that's really what was more interesting to me, I guess, for whatever reason, than what was going on in school.

There was a guy that was Frank Picciolo. All he did was, well, he did a lot of things, but he arranged armed robberies, breaking it, and he arranged robberies. He owned a restaurant called Picciolo's, and people would go in there that were police officers and detectives, and of course, they ate for free all the Italian stuff. And then tell them about stuff, about the furrier that was getting a new shipment or the whatever.

Then Frank knew guys on the street that were willing to break into these places, and the police were willing to take their time when the alarm systems went off and Frank's bedroom and basement were full of furs and jewelry and guns. So, he was much more interesting to go to his house than to go to school.

Art RapkinX

The book opens with you get arrested and thrown into jail for drugs found in luggage that wasn't yours. You end up tortured in a Mexican prison. That alone would be enough of a story for a book.

It would be. The book actually wasn't able to get into it with as much detail that could be gone into, because of the in-depth character development, political environment of the time between what was going on in Mexico and what was going on in the United States.

The whole cultural ramifications, how really I began to see where there could be an opportunity really to get out of there through making a big deal, a big stink out of situations that I think that the public didn't know about, the public in North America, Americans, Canadians, what was going on 18 miles south of San Diego in this other country.

It wasn't the Middle East, and it wasn't the CIA against bad guys in Guantanamo Bay. It was a bunch of kids that got caught with an ounce of pot or a gram of coke. So I think, yes, that would be enough.

How does a boy from Milwaukee end up on the airport tarmac in Colombia in 1972?

I would say I got in with the right crowd. Meaning in my mind, I had a imagination that had no boundaries, and I was able to think about doing something and then move forward into doing that, and most others would've had something called a conscience. I really didn't have the burden of a conscience, and also, anything that I thought of doing didn't have any bad intent to it.

I was just trying to live out an adventurous life. I didn't want to have the kind of life that was going to be, you go to high school and then you become a plumber, or you work in Sears and Roebuck in the appliance department. My father was a furniture salesman. He rode a bus to work and home. None of that interested me.

What interested me were travel internationally, adventures, hacking your way through the jungle. That was my fantasy. And I had heard about cocaine. I didn't know anything about it, but I thought maybe right time, right place, dumb luck. And that's really how I ended up going to Cartagena, Colombia, at a very young age.

Your story has a lot of other facets too. There's a story about you successfully impersonating Bob Dylan too. Tell us a bit about that.

Well, I did that every night actually by doing an act in coffee houses and bars and nightclubs. This was when Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all this type of folk music was emerging and becoming a little bit more mainstream and had a band, and I was in a band. But in addition to that, I had this little solo act that I did with another guy.

Well, it wasn't solo, it was me and another guitar player, and I loved the Bob Dylan songs, so I did a lot of Bob Dylan songs. I did other songs too, but I loved Bob Dylan and his songs, and they were very meaningful to me. So I did them. And someone who was a promoter of bands said to me, "You're just so much like Bob Dylan. You could pass as Bob Dylan. You sound just like Bob Dylan."

I guess he was right, so he booked a larger venue than a coffee shop or a nightclub. But instead of me performing under my own name doing Bob Dylan, he booked me as ‘Milwaukee's Bob Dylan.’

We did that because he didn't want to just have us both handcuffed and put in into jail. So that was some legalese that you could fall back on, ‘Milwaukee's Bob Dylan.’ There were different posters and so forth, and people just thought Bob Dylan, and there was no MTV there was just heard on the radio. The sound of the voice and his name had some familiarity to it.

We did this concert. We did a couple of them and out there and just did my act and got a standing ovation, and the box was a little bigger than just a nightclub where I don't know what I got paid, I don't remember. If I got $50 or a $100 for the night, if I got that, this was a bit bigger. There was a couple thousand people. Nobody was the wiser.

You’ve also run art gallery in Colorado and played in a band and learned acupuncture and Chinese medicine. One person could do a good job of telling a life story in 600 pages, you’d think, but I'm actually surprised you didn't need more space. Is there more you're saving for another book?

I think in the original draft there literally was 1,000 pages. I have I think approximately 50 different stories that were edited out. They were great stories, that, for example, if somebody said, "What else you got?” I’ve got them. If I talk on the phone with someone that I haven't talked to in a long time, like 20 years or 30 years, or run into somebody in a grocery store, and “oh my God, I haven't seen you for 37 years,” they'll come up with something that I had never even thought of or wasn't even in the book.

At one time I was writing a book called “Seven Rooms, Seven Stories,” because my clinic had seven rooms to it and each patient was a whole story unto themselves.

Have you been able to take all of your experiences and use them in a positive way, or do you see the book as a means of doing that too? What do you hope the readers will take away from it?

I do think that. My intention from many years ago was to put out a book that not only entertained and was a good read but was something that other people could relate to and not many people could relate to going to Colombia and smuggling cocaine, becoming a kingpin in the business. Not everyone could relate to being in Mexican prison.

But what everyone can relate to is their own struggles and their own transitions in life. And I went through a lot of struggles and transitions of my own making. Then on the other side of the coin, I decided to go back to school, was a high school dropout, get a doctorate in Chinese medicine and serve people. That took up the least amount in the book, but maybe were not the most interesting tales for the book’s purpose. I went to work every day and I did acupuncture and herbal medicine.

And I would call myself an advisor to people who needed help, meaning I remember a patient, she was crying and she couldn't sleep. She was 60-some years old. Her son was a cocaine dealer, 21 years old, and he had gotten caught that he was going to trial. Now, I'm Dr. Rapkin and I'm treating her for anxiety and depression. He's bleeding her bank accounts. And so now he's going to trial and he's probably going to get time in prison. I heard this every time she came to visit me, and I tried to console her and stuff.

But one day I said to her, "Well, that's a wonderful blessing. You're so fortunate, and so is he," and she looked at me, "What are you talking about, Dr. Rapkin, are you crazy?"

And I said, "I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't gone to prison and didn't have the opportunity to change my thinking through the experience. And your son, if he's on cocaine and he's selling cocaine and he's going to prison, how old is he, 21 or something? Well, that's a wonderful opportunity. In 24 months or whatever, he'll be back out and this is an opportunity to recognize and maybe change everything.”

It was like the skies opened up for her, and that's really when I realized that it was my life experience, and my, I guess, understanding of people's pain, whether it be physical, whether it be emotional. I had experienced so much that I could understand, and that was my way of being able to better help people than just the needles as an acupuncturist. I understood the power of story.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.