Currently reading : JK5 Subverts Expectations and Pursues Fashion Design
Written by Adam Lehrer
When Comme des Garçons debuted its new menswear collection at Paris Men’s Fashion Week, one couldn’t help but notice the jumpers and blazers printed with phrases like “Born to Die” that came down the runway. The pieces were striking in and of themselves, but perhaps even more surprising was that the garments were directly inspired by the work of multi-disciplinary artist Joseph Ari Aloi, AKA JK5, who is probably most known as an innovative tattooer.
Tattooers have certainly been able to branch into other media over the last 10 years, and art and fashion commonly intersect. But never has the work of a tattooer featured so heavily on the garments of a brand as prominent as Comme des Garçons. The collection might be able to elevate tattoos as a form and open up new opportunities for artists that are best known for tattoos. More interestingly, it has given confidence to Aloi to chase his true dream to be a high fashion designer.
The work of JK5 is always evolving. He has been drawing since he could hold a crayon, and has continued to develop his style and build his visual vocabulary ever since. From tattoos to visual art to product design, Aloi is always finding new platforms to express his voice. He is often unaware of the forces that he’s channeling, which allows his work to reach new and unexpected heights, “It’s like Jay Adams on a skateboard and really creative things are happening but that dude is just moving. Or Jimi Hendrix just playing the guitar,” he explains, “It’s just happening naturally because you are the conduit.”
The Comme collection unfolded when Aloi tattooed a client who had a position at the brand, a client who eventually shared Aloi’s most recent book, Joseph Ari Aloi AKA JK5: An Archive of Sketches, Tattoos, Drawings, Paintings and Objects, with Adrian Joffe, Rei Kawakubo’s husband and Comme’s business mind. Joffe eventually got the book in the hands of Kawakubo, who was intrigued. Aloi was then informed that his work would be used in some capacity, but it wasn’t until the clothes came down the runway and he saw his work on 37 of the 40 pieces that he knew how much of his art they would use: “It was emotional, it was intense, and it was super exciting,” he says.
The garments are saturated in Aloi’s aesthetic: “Daphne [Seybold, Head of Comme des Garçons’s Press in the U.S.] said that it was unprecedented in all of their collaborations to use that much of any single artist’s work,” says Aloi.
Aloi, 43, is fiercely ambitious and confident. Though he is quite tall and imposing he has a warm disposition. His presence calms those around him while simultaneously commands their attention. He talks a lot, but in those thousands of words you find someone who approaches art and life with deep sincerity.
Aloi is hardly the first artist primarily known for tattoos to successfully branch into other areas. For some two decades, the vanguard has slowly grown accepting of tattoos as an art form: tattooers like Scott Campbell show work in galleries all over the world, magazines such as this one formulate a thoughtful view of tattooing, and fine artists like Wes Lang draw influence from tattooing. Having a tattoo is as commonplace as wearing jeans to the office. Finally, tattooers are seeing success in other arenas.
“I think there’s a faction of tattooers that are among the most talented and visionary fine artists in the world,” says Aloi. “I think it always takes the mainstream a long time to catch up to the heat that is being forged in the underground.”
Aloi has worked with a variety of companies before the Comme collection, from Nike to Kid Robot. His first book, Subconsciothesaurusnex, that collected his tattoos and visual art from the ‘90s generated him a lot of attention. Some of these commercial projects he found creatively fertile. Others were not: “Some projects have been nightmares, especially when you’re answering to corporations and so many people that aren’t creative,” he says, “But I’ve always loved projects and new lines of dialog. It allows me to think of new forms that my work can take on.”
As with most artists, Aloi has difficulty sacrificing control over his work. Comme des Garçons’s menswear collection was no different, but when a brand like that shows interest in your work, you do it. He simply handed over his book to the company and from there was left in the dark: “I was scared and excited,” he says, “I was just hoping it would be at the level I knew it could be.”.
Aloi has hoped to break into the fashion world for a long time, and when he found out that none other than Comme was going to be using his work in one way or another, he was thrilled; “I’m really grateful that what I’ve done with letter forms, scripts, and my distinct style has been translated by the inimitable Rei Kawakubo,” he says, “I think it’s really good timing.”
But Aloi has much higher aspirations in the fashion realm. He is a self-described “fashion nerd” and considers designers like Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, and of course, Rei Kawakubo, among his biggest influences. Many tattooers have had opportunities to move their art into new mediums: Maxime Buechi, Grime, Henry Lewis, Thomas Hooper, and more have all had success in visual art and graphics and other fields. But none of them has ever taken a leap of faith into a new business the way that Aloi hopes to. Aloi, JK5, is formally announcing his every intention of releasing his own high fashion collection, and possibly his own brand: “I’ve been inspired by high fashion for a very long time and I’ve always aspired to something like this Comme project,” he says, “I knew there was real potential there for my work to take on a whole new form on living bodies beyond tattooing.”
Tattooing and fashion are related in the sense that they both are methods of self-expression through adorning the body. Aloi even sees fashion and costume as part of his work: “I’ve been designing clothing and costume in all of my own ways forever,” he says.
That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his work cut out for him. Fashion is a difficult industry to break into, and there are most certainly some fashion design students at Parsons and Central Saint Martin’s that would be fuming if they found out a former tattoo artist un-trained in design has even the slightest chance of getting a brand. But Aloi refuses to see barriers between the mediums he expresses himself in: “That’s like saying that painters shouldn’t be art directors and maintaining antiquated boundaries,” he says, “I have no experience making clothes. True. But with the right collaborative team the sky is the limit to bring something unique to the table.”
Aloi considers the Comme collaboration the synthesis of all his creative expression at this point. Though he still tattoos at Three Kings in Brooklyn , he wants to dramatically shift his creative energies away from tattooing and into fashion design: “I’ve always been really restless in my work,” he says, “But I don’t want to work in a shop every day anymore. I don’t want to wake up at 7 AM with my kids and then go in for a shift at 4 PM. It’s important to articulate that what I’m working towards is a major shift in where I spend my time and energy.”
Aloi is really hoping that he has Comme des Garçons’s support to work on a more official JK5 X CDG collection in the fashion of the Raf Simons X Sterling Ruby collection. But his highest and truest aspiration is to get his own JK5 brand under the CDG banner, “I think it’s real clear to Adrian [Joffe] what I want to do,” he says, “But I need to continue the conversation to find out what I need and what kind of support that there is.”
The thing that makes JK5 an artist that could realistically move into the well oiled machine of the fashion industry, his omni-directional focus, could also prove to be the thing that makes it difficult for him to narrow his focus to a specific collection, “It could be so hard to channel his vision in a logistical manner,” says Aloi’s old friend and filmmaker Sam Cole who is actually in the process of making a documentary about JK5. “But clothing is the modality that he wants to be in. For him it’s always about the art but it’s just happening that the opportunity to make clothing is becoming part of the journey that he’s always been on.”
Aloi is well aware of the hurdles that the fashion industry presents: the biases he’d have to overcome, the production costs he’d be responsible for tackling, and the dream team with garment production skills that he would need to hire. But if fully realized, he does have an idea of what the JK5 garments would look like. Aloi even bounced ideas back and forth with friend and fashion designer Siki Im, proposing that his collection would look like, “Modern practical garb for the creative Jedi warrior,” he says, “Clothes for men, women and children with a spiritual consciousness.”
There have certainly been fashion designers that have left fashion to focus on art full time. But it’s certainly more rare for an artist to enter fashion design, and unprecedented for an artist primarily known for tattoos to become a fashion designer. But if Aloi does succeed, the floodgates will be wide open for respected and creative tattooers to take on projects outside their comfort zones. A brand like Comme des Garçons using a tattooer’s work in its collections already further legitimizes the craft, but if Aloi is able to tackle fashion head on then other talented tattooers might be given opportunities to delve into their respective passions outside the world of tattooing.
By Adam Lehrer