By KURT MCVEY, SEPT. 2017
“It’s a coffee, a cigarette, and something that really sustains my butterfly system,” says Joseph Ari Aloi of his morning ritual from inside his quiet, sun-bathed Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment, where he’s lived since January. An in-demand tattoo artist (JK5) for over two decades and illustrated man in his own right, Aloi will be stepping earnestly into the percolating New York contemporary art dimension September 7th at Chelsea’s Gallery 88 ½ for the intimate space’s first, full-on solo art exhibition to date.
Though discussing an artist’s breakfast habits is a trademark Warhol Interview icebreaker, in this particular case, the talking point is considerably more relevant. Aloi’s show, for one, is called 1,000 Mornings, a direct allusion to poet Mary Oliver’s sparse but essential work of the same name. The poem was put on Aloi’s radar by his birth mother (Aloi was adopted), who reached out, somewhat out of the blue, with a powerful, poetic letter in her own right when her son was still a wayward undergrad at RISD in the early ‘90s (they were connected by the same doctor who supervised his delivery).
Aloi claims, though he had never had contact with his birth mother up to that point, that he immediately recognized the handwriting as hers. This was a clear evolutionary catalyst for the young artist’s post-collegiate career-a titanic, Promethean illustration of writing or simply mark making’s intrinsic ability to tap into something both deeply biological and strangely spiritual. Relaying this moment still has the power to move Aloi to tears and riddle his flesh with goose bumps. Oliver’s poem goes a little something like this:
“All night my heart makes its way however it can over the rough ground of uncertainties,
but only until night meets and then is overwhelmed by morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I too wait (and when have I ever been disappointed?) for
redbird to sing.”
For Aloi, the poem is a poignant encapsulation of the difficult experience of moving into his new space in early 2017, but more intensely perhaps, the challenge of moving out of the nearby apartment he previously shared with his long-time partner and mother of his two children. “I’ve had mornings with my wife and or kids completely thoroughly since 2003,” says an artist straddling the precarious but ideal creative line between hardened self-confidence and raw emotional fragility. “Since I moved into this apartment, I sleep alone, I wake alone. I have those mornings to find new ways of delineating ‘aloneness’ versus being painfully alone and finding new healthy ways of being alone.”
The details of his separation, though never specified as being outside the topical jurisdiction of an art-writer, let alone a new acquaintance, thankfully never seemed relevant. Aloi’s relationship with his ex, he claims, remains filled with love and undeniable positive experience. His daughter (8) and son (4) refer to their father’s new space, filled with art supplies, canvas in various stages of human interaction, scattered albums and stacks of art books (many of them Aloi’s own published works) as “The Jedi Temple,” and have their own separate bedroom complete with bunk beds.
The kids, both fitted with admittedly awesome, long-winded, pop-culture, hippy names, which Aloi says they’ve more than lived up to at this point, enjoy getting down with a vast array of creative pursuits, especially considering the apartment serves as much as a functioning studio as it does as a comfortable living space. When the kids are away however, which is most of the time, the artist will play, and in a bigger, considerably more physical capacity. The fruits of this newfound solitude (and freedom), made possible by this masculine, late-‘40s, room for one’s own, and the emotional (dark, light) complexities that stem from this reality, are the super-charged contents that will soon fill the narrow 88 ½ Gallery this delightfully over-saturated Thursday evening.
For Aloi, Oliver’s poem was a guide, a totem, a beacon of strength to essentially help him through, not a thousand days exactly (“a cosmic median of a number”), but certainly many difficult mornings. “It’s about trusting the hours, because they’ve brought you everywhere up until now,” says Aloi. [It’s about] the cracking open of each new day and how the skin is peeled away and a new day will reveal itself reliably. It’s about finding solace and sanctuary and my own internal peace through my creative process and through the power and comfort of this poet, her poem, and words that really resonate at a timeless, collective, universal level.”
A quick tour through Aloi’s multi-decade spanning life’s work showcases the artist’s affinity for language, writing, and symbology as immensely powerful shamanic tools to literally illustrate and elevate consciousness and therefore humanity as a species. From his precocious, pre-RISD work, graffiti (influenced by the‘70s-‘90s especially), through his celebrated tattooing-which graced the flesh of celebrities such as Marc Jacobs and the late Heath Ledger-to the contents of his books, such as the 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year award finalist (for which his birth mother wrote the intro), Joseph Ari Aloi AKA JK5: An Archive of Sketches, Tattoos, Drawings, Paintings, and Objects (Rizzoli) or even his in-motion, ready to wear collaboration with Rei Kawakubo’s FW 2015 Comme des Garçons line, Aloi’s calligraphic, glyphic, iconographic letter-forms are unapologetically present. It’s as if you stumbled upon a younger Joseph Kosuth (our best living conceptual artist) via the philosopher Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein at your local tattoo shop.
“I think it’s time for the visual language poet,” says Aloi. “For me, it’s about the integrity of marrying the deepest responsibility as a visual communicator-as a culmination of all human experience with my own-with the post-modern deconstruction of the written word in relation to the reality of how painful the birth of language actually was and still is.”
A recurring font, as seen in works such as I Woke Up This Morning With a Piece of Past Caught in My Throat (2017), which happens to be a lyric from the Alt-rock band Rites of Spring’s 1985 tellingly titled song, “For Want Of,” could be described, as the artist so eloquently puts it, as “Tolkien Elvish (‘Quenya’) meets Science-Fiction meets East LA.”
“Since I was five or six, since I could hold a crayon, I was drawing and writing, playing with logos, and personalizing language,” says Aloi. “Through such intensive study as a writer/artist, I’ve been assimilating calligraphic systems and the way other languages are written with the aesthetic aspirations of “the beautiful,” but hopefully in an equally intricate way, to where something really fresh rises from those embers-this ancient molten stew-to create a completely new way of writing.”
Aloi plans on making a decipherable key code for his unique fonts, but only if their ongoing evolution by way of creative exploration slows down enough for him to get a handle on them. For casual art fans lucky enough to stumble into art dealer and curator, Zahra Sherzad’s narrow vessel on 7th Avenue, looking to decipher any of the 25-plus works in Aloi’s thematically rich 1,000 Mornings, it’s best simply to focus on absorbing its potent emotional content-the elemental form, at once both ancient and contemporary. “Once you’re pulled into the tractor beam of what you’ve never seen before, though it may or may not feel inherent, you’ll see that maps are provided for the personal overlay of anyone’s experience.” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
photo by Monet Luckiview all articles from this author