Joseph Ari Aloi has been known in the tattooing world for 14 years as JK5, although few stop to ask what's behind the initials, instead focusing on his trippy custom work that rocks the collars, hands, and bellies of Williamsburg, Brooklyn— home to Saved Tattoo, where he's been tattooing for the past two years.
When an artist marries Sanskrit with East L.A. Cholo letter forms so organically, it may seem kind of inane to ask what the "5" stands for. But "geeked-out name language," as he calls it, embodies the life and work of the 38-year-old artist. He says, "In my own artistic identity, I choose acronyms or words that have multiple layers and meanings, like all the silly stuff I do." The "JK" breaks down to elements as far back as childhood, like "Jedi Knight" and his love of Star Wars. The "5" reps everything from a nickel bag of weed to five fingers working on one hand to create.
But in 2009, JK5 will become JK6. He and his wife, Azy, are expecting a child. "My first real offspring," JK5 says. "More a part of and an extension of me than anything I've ever created … at once from the womb of the spirit universe all their very own."
It's intense, but it's been an intense year for JK5 overall. In May, he suffered a herniated disk, keeping him from tattooing for three months. Even now, he works only two to three days a week at Saved and takes smaller work that can be finished up in one or two sessions. During those three months, he says, larger forces were at work. After years of searching, he found and has been getting to know his birth father. (He met his birth mother 15 years ago). "In the words of Darth Vader, ‘The circle is complete,'" he says.
The time off also allowed him to pursue other projects: new toy creations for Kid Robot's Dunny Series 5, out in early 2009; his own clothing line; new art books; and, what he's particularly stoked about, a trilogy of feature films with the late Heath Ledger's production company, We Are the Masses.
That project began when Ledger came to Saved for a tattoo. "It was like the karmic convergence," JK5 says. "We just vibed. I had my studio area at Saved, which was wild and alive. All my paintings were around, and my Flowbot toys were on the shelf. And he loved the toys and saw all the potential for my whole world of work to come alive on the big screen. He was a beautiful guy and a total creative spaz. He put me in touch with the executive producer, Sara Cline, who called me within a couple of hours. That's how it started."
He says his work with Cline as well as Holly Gilliam (daughter of filmmaker Terry Gilliam) is now getting "hot and heavy." It's also easier on his back. Still, he remains grateful for tattooing, and he continues to needle clients, albeit fewer. He wants that gratitude evident even as he pursues this "much larger picture" for his art. "There's a potential for my work to come completely alive and to tell my own stories. I'm creating my own epic, my own Star Wars."