Joseph Aloi is a body art superstar with a gentle soul.
Story — Kim Watson
Images — JP Yim
At well over six feet tall and weighing in at more than 200 pounds, Joseph Aloi presents an imposing and intimidating figure. When I came face to face with the legend, his deep-set eyes, heavy metal rings and the tattoos circling his neck only added to the impression that I was facing a very serious man. That was, until this master of the ancient art of tattooing spread his arms wide, smiled warmly, and pulled me into the kind of embrace usually reserved for family and long-lost friends. The truth is – Joseph Aloi is one of the most endearing and gentle men I have ever met.
Happily nestled in Fort Green, Brooklyn with his wife and two-year-old daughter Twyla, whose name adorns his neck above the motto PASSION, Aloi is a body-art superstar. But a love of all art forms keeps him in a creative frenzy, crisscrossing mediums and genres like a wild man determined to be heard. And the art world is listening.
“The thing I’m the least a fan of is boundaries and categories.When I was at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) I loved performance art. I’d recite poetry in the woods one day and paint sets the next. And writing was always important to me, so I made it a part of my work,” he told me.
There was humility in the way he spoke about RISD, only the most prestigious design school in the country, renowned worldwide for its output of first-rate artists and designers – which made me wonder how many tattoo artists could claim such an accomplishment. With a client list including a slew of mainstream celebs such as Marc Jacobs, Heath Ledger, Penelope Cruz, Ad-Rock as well as underground trendsetters and tattoo artist peers, Aloi has much to brag about … but that’s not his style. In just a few minutes, he had already shattered my image of the “badass tattoo guy.” I decided to cut down on my reality TV watching.
Forty-one-year-old Aloi grew up in a strict Italian Catholic family in White Plains, a suburban New York enclave where the middle class retained their assorted ethnic identities. “I got yanked out of grammar school ’cause I was a troublemaker,” he said. “So, they put me in Holy Name of Jesus and I freaked out. I was always out in the hall or the back of the class because all I wanted to do was be a class clown.” He went on: “The teacher didn’t know what to do with me so she sat me down with some paper and crayons and I started drawing. The other kids were like, look what he can do. Drawing was natural for me and art became the bridge to all my relationships.” Remembering his Catholic school days he turned to me with a grin, “The nuns kicked my ass!”
It was hard to imagine “Joseph the terrible” as he settled into his couch and reminisced: “I was a skateboard fiend, into Mantronix and Grand Master Flash. I loved cartoonists, Mad Magazine and album covers, and Dr. Seuss too.” He flashed a huge smile at the memory of the suburban, Adidas-loving, Kango-wearing, hip-hop worshipping kid he used to be.
While his friends in the Bronx were sneaking into the train yards to plaster their creations across locomotive canvasses, Aloi wasn’t going to take a chance like that. “My father would have kicked my ass if I got caught,” he said between chuckles. Just the same, he shared his friend’s passion for street art and perfected his own signature lettering style.
Although Aloi had been creating at home since he could grasp any drawing implement within reach, no one ever thought it would become his livelihood. It took his uncle, a talented musician, to show him that it was okay to be an artist. From that point on, art was the only road Aloi ever considered taking – which was probably a good thing considering he was more interested in drawing and cracking wise than studying. By high school, despite being an accomplished athlete, he had become more interested in custom painting the team jackets than shooting jump shots.
Aloi’s first college bid was a bust and he was kicked out of Southern Connecticut State University. “I had a blast,” he said, “but failed all my academic classes.” His life changed when he enrolled at Westchester Community and found his first mentor. Tom Halsall understood the scope of his young student’s work and saw in Aloi the makings of a truly gifted artist. Halsall guided his mentee toward the influential RISD. Aloi was either extremely confident or terribly naïve, for it was the only school he applied to transfer to and where he finally earned a degree. “I love you Tom Halsall,” Aloi bellowed in gratitude after telling me the story.
I looked around the 2nd floor of his apartment. We were surrounded by hundreds of paintings, acrylics on wood, sketches, tattoo patterns, dolls (yes, he designed them too), scratchboards and black books filled with one idea after another. The sheer breadth of Aloi’s creative output was overwhelming, leaving me to wonder if he ever sleeps. Noticing my concern for his need for 40 winks, he assured me, “I’ve been spazzing out in different directions because that’s what keeps me sane.” Then he continued, “You know, as chaotic as it is, it remains systemized.”
I feared putting him in some dreaded box, but quickly realized that wasn’t an option. Much of Aloi’s work was colorfully graphic and embraced a psychedelic stream-of-consciousness vibe, while other pieces, such as his pencil drawings, were muted and monochromatic. Aloi’s cryptic observations and poetic musings appeared in most. The closer I looked, the more there was to discover within the languid shapes and lettering that melded ancient symbols with contemporary inscription. “For years, as a tattoo artist I was doing a lot of Japanese and Tibetan work. Inspired by Sanskrit, I created my own letterforms called san-skript, [Aloi’s adaptation of the ancient Indo-Ayan language of Buddhism and Hinduism] and those past influences are somewhere inside the work now.”
His expansive output allowed for a wide range of themes in his tattoo designs and artwork. Some works inspired reflection; others, with their witty asides and editorials, tickled and provoked. Oh yeah, and Aloi isn’t afraid to include penises in hats and eyeglasses, just for fun. “I guess I’ve been flying the freak flag wide and high,” he laughed.
The various works, like the tatts on his own body, revealed Aloi’s emotional state at the time of their creation. “A big part of this is keeping everything fresh for the viewer and loving new modes of expression. I want a fresh voice,” he proclaimed. Part of the freshness meant creating “in the moment,” whatever the outcome may be.
Every week, Aloi spends four days in the tattoo parlor and the rest brainstorming, developing new ideas and concepts, and spending time with family. As many hours as possible are spent creating works for shows and publication.
Neatly arranged canvases were propped against a wall and a nearby table held stacks of manila envelopes containing sketches and miscellaneous items for a new book project. Yet, instead of coming across like the kind of manic genius who would rather kill himself than give up his frenzied pace, Aloi conveyed a peaceful and resolute focus. To stop drawing would be the end of him, “It’s not even a choice,” he told me. “I’m the channel; the conduit to tell the story.” It’s a responsibility he takes seriously.
“Everything starts with pencil to paper,” he said. “Really raw, really pure and it remains that way. The force is very alive and well in my work.”
His love of symbolism, iconic images and life affirming stories was inspired by Star Wars, the films of Kurosawa and others with similar mythological themes. These cinematic, literary and illustrated tales provided the perfect template for a young boy in need of characters for his endless creations, and the influence is present throughout his tattoo designs and other works. “I’m fascinated with religion in general and the way mythology breaks down our existence in a symbolic way,” Aloi said proudly, acknowledging his status as a loyal Star Wars geek.
Tatt Book: Visionaries of Tattoo is one of Aloi’s latest ventures. The Rizzoli/Universal book features 26 tattoo artists curated and edited by Aloi under his JK5 brand.
He was elated about the October 15th, release, speaking with awe of the roster of international tattoo masters he’d assembled for the project. In addition to their tattoo designs, these world-famous body artists contributed museum quality works in other mediums. Looking closely at the section containing his work, I recognize the Joseph Aloi style that established him as an artist with a unique vision and signature style.
Regardless of the medium, his work feels vested in a deep belief that the pursuit of love and an honorable life is all that really matters – besides art, that is. This is the essence of the man. Everything he creates comes from his heart. Still, he manages to dance between the edgy world of body art and the slick ad-driven world of commercial art and commission work. From toys to watch faces for Timex to oversized street murals for Sprite, there appears to be no end to his ideas. “Tattooing has been my bread and butter for eighteen years and for the last ten I’ve worked hard to create work for shows and build my JK5 brand. It’s all about growth.”
I stopped to survey the photos of his close-knit, “very Italian” family. Ernie and Cathy Aloi had done a good job raising Joseph and his younger sister. Sunday dinners were an excuse for family gatherings filled with eccentric characters who mostly lived just down the block. Aloi speaks lovingly of growing up in a great family. It wasn’t until he was seven that he was told he was adopted.
“I was raised Italian but I’m a Russian Jew and German,” he said with a sly grin. He pointed to the photo of a beautiful 19-year-old bohemian standing in Washington Square Park. “There was a real undefined and resigned darkness before I got the letter. I went to visit her in the village. It was mind blowing,” he told me, describing the moment with obvious joy. The letter was from his birthmother, who found him in 1993 during his senior year at RISD. He had intended to find her after graduation, but she beat him to the punch, which he admits is a pretty nice thing. Nearly 20 years later, and in typical Joseph Aloi fashion, his adopted family and birth mom still come together regularly to share laughs and good Italian food. It’s a love in, and if there is anything Aloi loves – it’s love.
Since then it has been full steam ahead. Subconsciothesaurusnex, a retrospective of Aloi’s work from 1977 through 1999, was published several years ago, and a Rizzoli book of the work he’s done since will hit stores in 2013. Meanwhile, Aloi and former Heath Ledger business partner Sarah Cline are in talks with Hollywood bigwigs who want to produce an animated film based on Flowbots, Aloi’s uber-groovy mythological doll series. With two shows coming up in New York and New Jersey over the next few months, there will be little sleep for the multi-dimensional Aloi. But he likes it that way.
As we walked down the stairs to the front door, work took a back seat to more important business and we talked of our wives and children. The door opened and I stepped outside and into the New York humidity, but not before Aloi pulled me into another bear hug.