Joseph Ari Aloi, better known to his “homies” and fans as JK5, is a man of myriad talents and endless imagination. Based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this tattoo artist is that and so much more. From his day-to-day routine of adorning bodies with his script and drawing, to publishing a substantial coffee table book showcasing his work from the age of five, to collaborating with globally recognized clothing company Mishka, to brainstorming feature film pitches with the late Heath Ledger, this 38-year-old first-time-father-to-be (congratulations!) sure knows how to make the most of his skills and aspirations.

Aloi lives his life freely, sharing with the world his various visions. His mind operates at lightning speed and one can hardly fault him for foregoing a filter, both when he speaks and when he enters the studio and communicates via more concrete mediums. His thought process is something to behold, a complex powerhouse of clashing and complimentary considerations alike. A Mecca of mind-blowing proportions, any creative team would be lucky to have him. But this innovator flies solo, frequently brushing shoulders with other thinkers, but at his center operating independently, driven by his soul and his seemingly bottomless well of curiosity and dreams.

This gifted spirit, with his warm demeanor and ‘anything goes’ attitude, is someone you may not know, but soon won’t be able to shake. By his very nature, Aloi is an inspiration, a guy who gets the ball rolling and will stop at nothing to see his goals through to the end. If there even is one. Based on what we’ve learned through sitting down with him, doors are rarely closed, and never locked. What begins as a simple sketch on a lined notebook page could very well expand to become the next big thing on the big screen. You never know with him.

“I’m really conscious of being interesting and intelligent and relevant and present and speaking to the core of humanity and the human spirit and the human condition and the human psychology.”

Format: First off, how did you come to go by JK5?
JK5: The acronym JK5 started when a lot of my homies were calling me the Jedi Knight of drawing because of how I drew, how much I drew and how much I loved to draw. And the fact that I’m a big Star Wars nerd. JK5 has a very personal history for me, ’cause I’ve always been Joey and my sister’s always been Karen. Five was lots of levels of significance; they range from five fingers on one hand used to create, and three, the magic number, plus two, the Gemini, which I am; all five fingers working on one hand; a nickel bag; the 5th dimension, being the spiritual dimension, the absolute dimension; gimmie five. It’s always my number. The acronym morphs and mutates and changes depending on the context. I’m kind of just a big fan of dissolving things and reconstructing and re-assimilating, so JK5 can be so many other things.

Format: How did you get started? I read about how your book, Subconsciothesaurusnex, covers artwork from 1977 to 1999, which would include your work as a 7-year-old!
JK5: My grandmother salvaged a whole body of drawings from the time I was 5. When my friend, Matt Clark, and I, were working on the book and deciding how it would open up, we just wanted it to be a celebration of a specific generation, our generation, the generation that was raised on Star Wars. We thought it would be a way to tap into the collective unconscious, the fact that everybody’s coming from a similar ocean of information and then personalizing from there. I’m just showing that there’s a complete woven thread from the womb to this very minute of who I am. I got started ’cause I’ve been drawing ever since I was able to hold a pencil.

Format: So, how did it come to be that you wanted to put together this book?
Jk5: Back in college, at RISD, my friend Matthew said to me one day ’cause I’d been burning through sketchbooks for a really long time, just keeping really personal journals. “You know, man, everyone’s life is a book, but no one I know documents their life quite like you. I wanna be the one to publish a book of your work one day, to introduce you to the world.” That’s how it got started.
Then in ’94 I started learning how to tattoo. I was bombarded by all these iconographic vocabularies and imagistic vocabularies, an incredibly vast wealth of content and information, getting introduced to tattooing.

While I was studying and absorbing it all, I would do my own thing just for fun. To stay sane and counter-balance everything, there’d be, like, the sacred heart of Jesus and I’d do a cross penis and a cross vagina, or a heart of Star Wars. I was never really interested in doing what other people were doing. I was interested in being as distinct and interesting a tattoo artist as I could be, whereas a lot of my friends were aspiring to be like these tattooists in the ’40s who paved the way. As much as I’ve learned from those artists and that generation, and artists of my generation that adhered to those philosophies and attitudes and aesthetics, it was just never my thing.

Format: So, where did you come up with the title, Subconsciothesaurusnex, for your book?
JK5: I’m a word sculptor. It was a drawing I did; it was a dinosaur with a pencil for a tail and a light bulb for a head. Instead of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I just lyrically rhymed it with what I felt I was doing as an artist and as a manual creator and it became a Subconsciothesaurusnex instead of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. So it went form Tyrannosaurus Rex to subconscious thesaurus and next.

Format: Elaborate thought process! How did you incorporate into your life this addition of doing tattoos? Is that how most tattoo artists start?
JK5: Everyone has their own story, their own origin. For me, I was really ambivalent about the realm before I wanted one. I never really wanted one. I never thought one way or the other about tattooing or tattoos until my life unfolded and I ended up at RISD from ’91-’94 and I decided I wanted one. That’s how it all got started. I wanted a piece of a 200 hour pencil drawing I did. I wanted a swatch of it as a tattoo and it grew from there.

Format: And where is that?
JK5: It’s covered up. It’s under another layer. That’s what happens when you run out of room.

Format: You’re not gonna move on to the face?
JK5: No way. Never. I really feel like there’s a line. My first one was on my left bicep and it slowly morphed into a ¾ Japanese sleeve, which was an aesthetic I was really blown away by at the time.

Format: And after finishing the book, you ended up designing clothes for Mishka.
JK5: Greg Rivera, Co-Owner & Operations Manager and Mikhail Bortnik, Co-Owner & Creative Director and I started seeing each other at openings and we were really digging each other’s work. We wanted to join forces in some interesting way. Later, I ended up at Saved and Mishka’s offices were upstairs. We decided we wanted to do a proper large scale artist collaborative collection of my work in clothing form. We wanted it to be all about creativity. We thought ripping apart one copy of my book and finding our favorite bits would be…a really lo-fi arts and crafts style collage. We thought it’d be rad to construct it ourselves in this really manual way and then make a print of all this original, hand drawn content through 22 years of my life. So it would be that information as the patterns. And then it kind of grew.

Format: Any merch left?
JK5: All sold out. Talk of doing a piece or two in the future. One thing that’s important to know is that there’s very few forms I don’t want my work to take eventually. Clothing and accessories and toys and films and clothing for kids and a world of stuff, a world of forms, based on thousands and thousands of original images and ideas and a whole visual language that’s all over the place.

Format: Very 360! I see that you’ve also done figurines and toys.
JK5: Flow-bots. November of ’07. They sold out within 6 months or so. I was really stoked. It was my first toy series. We have another top-secret toy in production right now that’s hopefully gonna drop by the late spring, early fall. It’s just one concept from my book, Subcon, just one drawing I did in ’97 that they’re three-dimensional-izing.

Format: I know you’ve worked commercially before, with brands like Nike and Tylenol. What’s the most recent commercial project you’ve worked on?
JK5: I got hired to conceive of and create and execute a 7 by 15 foot mural for a Sprite pitch for the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy. It took me 100 hours and it went from January 7 to inauguration day. It was a really rad experience.

Format: Did they sell the campaign?
JK5: I can’t really say.

Format: How did you get involved in that big Deitch projects exhibition?
JK5: I got to know this amazing artist by the name of Eli Sudbrack, who went by Assume Vivid Astro Focus. I was recommended by a few friends of his to be the performative aspect of his show, in the form of a live tattoo artist, through the duration of the show. We ended up collaborating and integrating my work into his wallpaper pieces. That was my gig all summer. Through the duration of the show, I tattooed out of that art space. That was my gig. I just had appointments. I did well that summer. It was amazing. Ali is a really special artist. I was really happy to be a part of it.

Format: We’d like to hear a little bit more about your fine art…
JK5: I’ve been a part of some really cool, really fun shows. Group shows and some solo shows in New York and Tokyo. I am patiently working towards and aspiring to solo show opportunities in cities all over the world. There’s some dialogue going with different friends in different cities. When the time is right, I’ll know when a new show is coming around. I’m very patient with how that’s all unfolding.

Format: So, what’s your preferred medium, besides skin?
JK5: I’m not crazy about canvas. I like paper. I like wood panel. I love creating installations in immersive environments. I’m really into sculpture and three-dimensional-izing my world of work. So, all different mediums really. I’m working on a really exciting film project right now. My fine art is always evolving. At its core, there’s endlessly flowering mythological universe of content that marries what’s happening inside me and what’s going on with the outside world, a kind of bio exploration. I’m always playing with form. You could say that aspects of my art are really cheeky, aspects of my art are really literal, aspects of my art are completely encrypted and really complex and densely layered, kind of like stratigraphic layers of meaning and narrative that all get woven together. At its heart, it’s pretty autobiographical. There’s a lot of re-imagining all the information that I was devouring through the ’70s and ’80s as a child; mythology and science fiction and human sexuality and sensuality and characters that are rich with archetype and meaning and metaphor. There’s a lot to say. I’ve been obsessed with certain images and ideas for a really long time and there’s sort of reoccurring themes in the work that illustrate that.

Format: What kinds of themes?
JK5: I would say kind of a reconstruction of a whole world of identities and fonts and logos and characters and mythology and iconography. There’s certain cop shows from the ’70s that have gotten a sci-fi twist of sorts in newer paintings of mine. When the Flow-bots came out, I did a series of acrylic paintings on wood panel that brought to life the characters in these completely imaginative, surreal environments and landscapes. And, at the same time, I played with conflict and duality and good and evil and forces that are constantly at work within us all. I’ve been obsessed with drawing bank robbers and bad guys ever since Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman days. For me, it’s an image I’ve always been fascinated with. It has lots of layers of meaning and dimension, like everything I’m doing.

Format: So, tell me a bit about this preoccupation with Star Wars.
JK5: I’m a big Star Wars nerd, but I’ve been basically creating a whole universe with the breadth and complexity and dimension and narrative of a Star Wars, or of a mythology, ever since I was seven. I’m a fan of how much was created with Star Wars, the fact that it was…a whole universe developed from scratch, complete with species and languages and names and alphabets. It’s more about that for me than just being a big Star Wars fan.

Format: What’s been the biggest challenge along the way?
JK5: My biggest challenge is my own anxiety, my own impatience with this world I’ve been creating for over thirty years. What’s really challenging for me is being really content. That’s it. But , it keeps me really spastic with how prolific I like to be, how much I like to do and how much I like to create. My own security internally has always been challenging to me for a world of reasons.

Format: What’s been the biggest reward?
JK5: My biggest reward is people really digging what I do, speaking to people on a level that is honest and genuine and human and creative and communicative, with people who take the time to absorb what I’m doing. It’s incredibly rewarding. There’s a fraction of things I do that you can sort of digest quickly, but most of what I do requires a real patient digestion and I’m really conscious of being interesting and intelligent and relevant and present and speaking to the core of humanity and the human spirit and the human condition and the human psychology. I think there’s reward everywhere, so, in one sense, what I’m doing with my work is engaging in dialogue with it all, with the enormity of things, with consciousness and awareness itself, nurturing my gifts, giving back. I’m just trying to get out as much as humanly possible.

Format: Wow. What’s next?
JK5: I’m working on eventually having a clothing collection for adults and kids. I’m working on a world of new toys. I’m working on a new book, with a working title narrowed down to either L.aboratory O.n V.enus E.ternal or JK5 Kreactivity, and it should be out within the year. It’s a selected collection of drawings, paintings, and lettering tattoos.

Most excitingly, I’ve been nurturing a really cool project with the late Heath Ledger’s production company in L.A. To make a long story short – I met Heath, I tattooed him. We vibed. We became friends in a genuine but humble way. He saw the potential for my Flow-bots and my whole universe of work to come alive on the big screen. The production company just got the rights from Kidrobot and their parent company in San Francisco called Wild Brains to develop a series of feature films based on my personal life story, my autobiography – my adoption, my reunion, all of that. All of this imaginative content set in another world is sort of the plan. It’s my own Star Wars, something I’m going to be creating and building, however long it takes.

Format: Wow. What sort of format can we expect?
JK5: Our ideal aesthetic is somewhere between Pixar and Pan’s Labyrinth.
I can’t really reveal too many details, but I’m really stoked. This is an opportunity to crystallize my whole life’s work and they want to do a series of features. Heath saw the potential for it. If you knew him for a minute, and you vibed electrically and creatively like we did, cool stuff was gonna happen. He’s an incredibly generous, really warm, really beautiful man and I miss him a lot.

Nell Alk

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  1. Your script lettering is sick… if you can do you think that you could do one in the same font as your Una Sangre saying No Regrets for me by tomorrow morning? If you can that would be amazing.

    If you do just e-mail it to me at: djr_shorty16@hotmail.com

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