Happy Monday! Today we have a brand new interview on the blog: this time I got to chat with painter, illustrator and tattoo artist Joseph Ari Aloi, AKA JK5 about his inspirations and ideas on spirituality. The name might not ring a bell to most people on this side of the pond but know that he’s tattooed many a famous individuals, one of them the late Heath Ledger, among others. But that doesn’t really matter, as he is in his own right an extremely talented and accomplished artist. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NYC and divides his time between his family, tattoos and other art projects – and now will be visiting us in the UK this week.
So, you’re coming over to England this week!
I’m very excited, I’ve never been to the UK before! It’s been all kinds of missed opportunities or ill alignments with record labels, bands, art shows and projects that weren’t just quite meant to be, up until now. Now it’s a convergence of meant to be-ness and a wonderful way to be there for the first time. It embodies a lot and I’m being received by so many people, doing my book signing, it’s exciting!
Tell me a little bit about yourself, how did you get into art and tattooing?
It’s never been a choice or an option, I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a crayon or any sort of implement and I really haven’t stopped. I was hyperactive, imaginative and creative in grammar school, then got more serious about it in high school. Then, when I was in college, my third college – because I transferred twice – I just wasn’t ready for a focused art school or design curriculum right out of high school. I needed a well rounded, wild partying versatile college experience and that’s what I got. Then, I finally applied to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), I got in and it changed my life. I was finally in a place where all these expressive individuals from all over the world were gathered to go to school together and it was an awakening – my musical taste and exposure to other artists, literature, poets and art movements exploded and opened up when I was there.
Also a deeply personal thing happened to me that changed the course of my life – I got a letter from my birth mother on my senior year at RISD, 23 years, 5 months and 19 days after I was born. That was something I had been aching for internally, spiritually and psychologically in my biological bones. Not knowing (where I came from) gave me an incredible reason to design and define myself. I started off drawing all kinds of cartoons, Star Wars characters, science fiction and fantasy, then got into surrealism and other art movements in High School. I was doing everything from photo realistic oil paintings, to translating my own dreams and filling up journals, always exploring and generating my own visual languages and drawing from my internal life and the outside world . You can say that the theme of finding oneself has always been a major motif, Star Wars introduced me to that mythical hero journey, and I always related to it.
I got the letter from my birth mother that changed everything, and at the same time I decided I wanted to tattoo. I was good friends with a print maker who had the equipment – all punk rock style, out of his kitchen, in Providence RI- and that was sort of it. I got bit by the bug of that history, culture and expression. What it was like to bleed and feel the pain for your own beliefs and expression, or something as simple as getting a drawing etched onto your body, the canvas shifting and turning yourself inside out if you will.
When tattooing presented itself in my life, I was ambivalent about the idea of tattooing before I really wanted one. Then all these factors converged, changed my life and gave me this incredible craft, platform and vehicle for all my other personal work which I was always generating. It just enabled me to stay true to myself and be completely free, but earn an honest living and carve out a special unique artistic identity (at the same time).
Between 94 and 97 I was at this little biker shop, just burning through sketchbooks and generating original content, exploring my own spirituality – East vs West. It’s like a ton of pop cultural, ethnically inspired design languages. The sketchbooks, because of how densely and richly those pages got filled, became a style, aesthetic and a process, ultimate sort of medium unto itself and I got known for that. In 99 I published my first book, self published with my good friends from RISD and that got around the world. After that, opportunities for art shows and products started happening and naturally expanding.
What about the new book?
The new book is a time capsule, a beautifully designed document of my best output, back to 2003. There are some pages from the 70’s and bits and pieces from from my childhood, sketchbook pages from the 80’s and 90’s but for the most part it’s the last 11, 12 years.
What inspires you most to create nowadays?
I’m going to say I was really inspired by an interview I just heard yesterday about the presence of the divine and how one defines their spirituality. There were some really intelligent and insightful esoteric responses. This one caller equated the word curious (to spirituality) and said she had an insatiable curiosity for the mystery of life, the unknown, the unexplored. Why are we here, what is really going on inside my brain, how does one define the spirit, how do we manifest our divinity through our work and she equated being spiritual with being curious. I thought that was really bang on and very real to me.
I’ve always considered myself deeply spiritual and insatiably curious, my curiosity is constantly fueling my productivity. I’m constantly working and evolving my content, it’s a full time job. It keeps me up at night, makes me want to stay in bed because I’m still dreaming of it – a new form I want the work to take or environments using all my visual language. Prolific as I am, I’m getting out 1% of my subconscious activity. I always have work to do and at 43 years old I’ve produced enough work for a few lifetimes.
We have something in common, which is growing up and being educated in a Catholic school. How do you think that may have influenced your work?
(At the time) There was break dancing and hip hop and I was trying really hard to be that kind of kid. I was really into graffiti but my dad was Italian and really strict and he would kick my ass if I actually ever wrote on walls so it was all happening in my sketchbooks. My parents had this teacher’s conference at my school and were going around and all they were getting was negative feedback. When it gets to the religion teacher and he’s like “Joey Aloi? That’s your son? He’s one of the best students I’ve ever had. His notes are impeccable, he illustrates everything we’re learning about – the Church and Catholicism, the symbols, he asks questions, excellent test taker.” My dad is like “Are you sure you’ve got the right kid?” I tell you this story because a) it’s such a good story, b) it has everything to do with the religious artist that I’ve always been, if you will.
I think my Catholic foundation and early experience turned me on into this internal church we should be worshiping at, that’s all about awareness and consciousness. It’s all here now, a oneness with the divine, no separation, it’s all here on earth. It’s magic, look around, the acid that dissolves the doors of perception, like Aldous Huxley said, it’s all here. The early exposure to Christian art and all its vocabularies and stories, all the saints, angels and symbols through to Star Wars and all sorts of pop culture, mythological translations into tattooing it is all about this higher consciousness. The Church of the Creator vs the Church of the False Invader, the duality between your own internal and artistic spirituality vs that of the masses, or that of a drive-thru window, or that of plastic externalized culture that’s completely co-opted.
If you get to know my body of work as a whole, which is a history of the universe onto itself, you will see all the woven threads, going back to my earliest memories of drawing Jesus, Kiss, Star Wars, crosses, symbols, logos, cartoons, it’s all there.
I’m really curious about your book and see all these layers of your work.
It’s beautifully designed and carefully edited, a digestible and navigable journey of my life and work like never before. It’s my third book published and my first monograph at Rizolli. I’ve done a million projects and been working and tattoing for a long time. With this book, I don’t have to say anything, I just put it in someone’s hand, people just pick it up and read it like a novel. There’s a chronology to it, an autobiographical component, it’s a portfolio, a time capsule, a retrospective and embodies a lot of different things. My birth mother wrote the intro, there’s contributing essays by contemporary artists. Some of these essays are hilarious, entertaining and informative, even moving and it’s all there! I wrote the intro to all the different sections, (as it’s) separated into categories. The response has been really wonderful and I just found out the New York Times is going to cover the book, and that’s really exciting.
Thank you Joseph for your time and kindness. Joseph will be tattooing in London for this week only and doing a book signing on the 1st of May at Seven Doors Tattoo in London. Check their website for more details.