The Pro Files: Meet Celebrity Tattoo Artist JonBoy
Tattoo artist JonBoy is lighting up Midtown – literally. A pink neon glow emanates out from under the door of his very first New York City tattoo studio, situated on the second floor of one of the city’s coolest Midtown hotels, Moxy Times Square. For the pro, born Jonathan Valena, the decision to set up shop amidst a revolving door of international visitors wasn’t hard. “I love the vibe. I feel like I’m at home,” says Jonboy, who stayed in every type of room the hotel has to offer before inking the deal. “I wanted to wake up and order Egghead – I wanted the full experience.”
Just like his Instagram feed, his customized suite is a hypebeast’s dream. A Gucci tattoo table takes center stage, while one wall is adorned with an epic, edited collection of designer items including Supreme boxing gloves, as well as super personal touches like neon prayer hands.
His faith plays a huge role in where he is today. “I owe it all to God,” says the artist, who happened to meet his first famous client – Hailey Bieber – at church.
Now the pro has over 636,000 followers on social media, and models, musicians and moguls (Bella Hadid, Halsey, Kaia Gerber and Kendall and Kylie Jenner to name a few) are rocking his tiny designs. Below, he opens up to PEOPLE about his 19-year career.
When did you know you wanted to become a tattoo artist?
“I went to seminary because I wanted to be a youth pastor. But I also got my first tattoo at 19, and the more I did that, the more I felt this desire to become a tattoo artist. While I was a youth director at a place called Souled Out church in Iowa, I met a tattoo artist Kevin Fitzgerald, and we became friends. I ended up doing a year and a half apprenticeship with him. There were so many times when I wanted to quit, but I felt that this was God’s plan. There’s something magical that happens with someone sits in that chair. They are going through things, they have stories to share. And I want to hear them. I want to be a part of that.”
Did you aspire to be a celebrity tattoo artist?
“When I started 19 years ago, I was tattooing bikers, misfits, and outlaws. I never thought celebrities would be getting tattooed, or that I’d be sitting here tattooing people I admire, and who inspire me. But I treat everyone like a celebrity. To me, you’re important, no matter what, you know?”
Who was your first celebrity client?
“Hailey [Bieber]. We met at church. Her dad [Stephen Baldwin] would show me all his tattoos from like Kat Von D and all, and Hailey would say, ‘one day I’m going to get tattooed, Dad.’ He said ‘when you’re 18.’ She was 17 at the time, so I just waited! I knew she was going to be the next big thing, because she’s just beautiful inside and out. I remember getting the call from her. She wanted her parent’s wedding day in roman numerals. After I tattooed her, she just kept coming back. Then one day, she said, ‘I am coming in with a friend.’ And it was Kendall [Jenner].”
How did tiny tattoos become your niche?
“I was always taught that the line work was the most important thing in the tattoo so I just kind of honed in on that. And the more I did these little tattoos, the more people were like, ‘that’s cool.’ And Instagram [helped as well]. You tattoo someone who’s famous, then the press writes about it.
People hate on them sometimes, like ‘that’s not a real tattoo,’ and I get frustrated. But you really have to know how to finesse that needle in there, because if you do it wrong, then there’s no room for error.”
When was the moment you realized people on the street knew who you were?
“When my mom’s friends were like ‘Was that your son on the season 14, episode 6 of Keeping up with the Kardashians?’ It’s cool, and kind of flattering, to be recognized for something you love to do. People travel from all over the world to get tattooed by me. That’s another reason I wanted to have my shop in a hotel. But, I never want it to get in my head. No one wants to be around someone whose ego is too big.”
How does your new shop in Moxy Times Square embody your personality?
“This stuff was all in my house! I feel like I am at home. I am a collector. Some would say I am a borderline hoarder. But fashion inspires me. Neon is my favorite. I’ll be on Craigslist, like, ‘why is no one selling neon!’ These are the things that inspire me.”
What have you learned in your nearly 20-year career?
“To be grateful. I am grateful that I play a role in this world, and that I have purpose in life. I just had a low moment. I broke up with someone that I had thought I was going to marry. But thank God I have friends. G-Eazy helped me out through it, we were going through the same thing. He was like, ‘Yo man, don’t let that get you down.’ I feel like people need to know they’re not alone.”
What do you hope others learn from you?
“Don’t ever put down the machine. If a client says, ‘you misspelled Aries!’ How am I supposed to know? I am a Gemini! [Laughs]. But never, ever, give up. And treat people with respect. Attitude bothers me. People are trusting you with their bodies and paying you their hard-earned money to mark them permanently. I never want someone to be like, ‘ah, cool tattoo JonBoy but you are kind of a jerk,’ I want you to be like, ‘man, that was a cool experience.'”