Portrait of JK5. Photos by Carlo Van De Roer
For years, I wanted a tattoo of the Tennessee Williams quote “A prayer for the wild of heart that are kept in cages.” I nearly got the tattoo when I was drunk at college in North Carolina, but thankfully I prevented myself from contracting hepatitis at a dirty tattoo parlor and waited till I moved to New York City to get the tattoo. While hunting for a tattoo artist in the city, I received a recommendation from my dear friends the Stein Brothers: they said I had to have my tattoo designed by master script artist Joseph Ari Aloi.
Known as JK5, Joseph is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, writer, poet, and tattoo artist. His fine lines and script work have made him many celebrities’ favorite script artist. (He even tattooed the late Heath Ledger.) He works at Daredevil Tattoo, and next February, Rizzoli will publish Joseph Ari Aloi AKA JK5, a new book collecting JK5's designs. He’s one of the best tattoo artist I’ve ever seen, and over the years, I’ve returned to Joseph several times. (Along with the Tennessee Williams quote on my right forearm, which was photographed for Joseph's book, he's responsible for the Hindu goddess Kali etched on my right thigh.)
A tattooed wise man of sorts, Joseph shares his knowledge and bizarre experiences with his clients as he tattoos them. When I asked Joseph if I could share some of his stories in my column, his co-worker overheard us and said to me, “Bio mom. Ask Joseph about the bio mom story.” Joseph agreed, and he sat down with me to talk about his adoption, its effect on his art, and how a mysterious letter led to him meeting his birth mom, Mary, two decades later.
VICE: How did you find out you were adopted?
JK5: My parents told me I was adopted when I was old enough to understand. I was about seven. I got a letter from my birth mother my senior year at Rhode Island School of Design, 23 years, five months, and 19 days after I was born.
When did your birth mother send you a letter?
The letter came on an icy grey Providence afternoon. I walked into the mailroom with some friends like I did every day, and I saw that I got a letter from somebody in Manhattan. Right at that moment, as soon as I looked at the purple ink, then at the penmanship, and then I saw the down strokes of the “Y” and the “G.” I knew that it was her—something so strange, but deeply felt and known that I had been waiting for it my whole life. The letter read:
Dear Joseph Michael, I understand that it is possible that you are the Joseph Michael born in Tarrytown, New York June 12th 1970. No one is aware that I am writing this to you. I believe it is always your choice to seek me out, but clearly I have already taken a risk. If the above is correct, I am your birth mother. I will accept any response to this that you choose; when you were young I learned that you were well and cared for and expressed interest in your roots. Just know that I long to meet you but will accept any response that you chose. Feel free to write or call whenever at the address below; be well with love, Mary.
How did you react to the letter?
I just exploded. My eyes filled with water. I felt pure energy and electricity: shock, elation, joy, absolute disbelief, excitement. I had been waiting for this my whole life. I called the number, got her voicemail, and heard my voice as a female. I left her an hour long message saying how excited I was and how I had been waiting my whole life for this, and she called me back a few hours later and was just filled with bursting joy. She said I sounded androgynous like she always knew I would. We talked for like four hours, and then that weekend I drove into Manhattan. My friends left me at the corner of 6th Avenue between Bleeker and Houston. I buzzed her—it was a three of four story walk-up—and there she was in the doorway: a glowing, bohemian-like earth mama kind of woman.
Did you spend the rest of the day with her?
We just looked at each other, and we had the same eyeballs. We then burst out laughing, and then I went up to her and she was like, “Yep, you’re my kid.” And then we hugged and squeezed. We ended up drinking wine and making mix tapes until dawn, and I remember there was this super intense, very real, very rare, physical sensual draw to my mother. We had to separate at times because we wanted to hug, and I wanted to climb back up into the womb. We went outside into her garden, held hands outside in the rain, and just became the best of friends.
JK5's portrait of his mother
Did meeting her change your perception of yourself?
Finally seeing my true biology and what I came from meant everything to me. Because growing up I always thought, Where are my heart, my brains, and my hands coming from? It healed a whole lot.
Did your mother explain why she put you up for adoption?
She was 19, and it was the summer of love, 1969. I was conceived during a violent thunderstorm at a hotel which is now a dorm. It was one of the last single room occupancy hotels in the city. Kerouac and Burroughs and junkies and transvestites stayed there; artists that were broke lived there with their dog, like my birth father. In the eloquent words of Mary, meeting her healed over the earth of her body because of her own history of trauma and abuse.
It sounds like your mom had a rough life.
Yes. And having to give me up for adoption was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. She ended up hospitalized in Bellevue Hospital, was suicidal, had to get shock therapy, and experienced the medieval mental health care system first hand.
How did she manage to survive this trauma and eventually meet you?
It ended up being her life’s work, fighting for patient’s rights as a psychiatric survivor. She transformed her pain and experience to help heal others, as I use my art to transform my own pain.