New York City-based tattoo artist Jonathan Valena — more commonly known as JonBoy — has left his mark on some of music and fashion’s most notable names, including Justin Bieber, Zayn Malik, Travis Barker, and Victoria’s Secret Angels Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner, and Bella Hadid. With over half a million Instagram followers, collaborations with fashion superpowers including Coach, Gucci, and Revolve under his belt, and now, a capsule sneaker collection with Koio Collective, there is no one better to bridge the gap between body art and fashion.
Over the past seventeen years, JonBoy has created a niche market that turns minimalistic, fine line tattoos into dainty pieces completing an entire look. His work has become so popular that, according to his girlfriend-turned-manger, Lauren Ledford, he receives over 50 appointment requests per day.
Sitting down for an interview after a full Wednesday packed with appointments, JonBoy came out clad in black from head to toe — including his Swarovski crystal-embelished Gucci glasses — giant gaudy rings and gold chains around his neck, comfortably setting up a private area in the corner of New York’s West 4 Tattoo.
How did you develop your signature minimalist tattoo style?
It was actually by accident, really. The tattoos I was doing before were a lot bigger, had bigger outlines — think like sailor tattoos — and I was known in this industry to be the guy who does really clean, traditional, ‘50s-style tattoos. I found myself turning away a lot of people because they wanted to get these fine line, small tattoos, and I would say, “No, it has to be this big, or this wide.” I just started to realize that these were people who could be getting tattooed, who want to mark their body for life, and so I just started doing it.
I saw this guy named Dr. Woo [who has a similar fine line style], and I thought, if he could do stuff like that, I could too. I went back to the basics. I had to build needles back in the day, and now I’m using the same [kinds of] needles that I learned to build back then. There’s no room for error when you’re trying to pull these nice fine lines; for a bold outline, if the line is a little wonky you can get away with it, but for me, I have to make sure I’m on it.
Tell us about how you blend tattoos and fashion.
I’ve always loved fashion and I’ve always been a shopaholic. When I was younger my mom would take me to the mall; that was our way of getting away from things. I never thought that I would be tattooing people in the fashion world because back then, I was tattooing bikers, punk rockers, rough-and-tumble guys, you know? Nowadays, a model can have a tattoo that looks like a little accessory, but still have that meaning behind them.
All these tattoos have really unique stories, and my job is to make sure they look tasteful and timeless. In the 17 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen different trends come and go, but I think this fine line stuff is here to stay. They’re tattoos that are easy to get. They don’t have to be in your face and bold, they just look good.
You’ve done tons of collaborations, whether fashion or tattoo-related. What has been your most memorable?
It’s so neat going into an unfamiliar place for me because I’m not a fashion designer, I’m a tattooer. I think the most memorable was my colette pop-up collab with GRLFRND Denim. We were launching GRLFRND Denim at colette in Paris during Fashion Week, and we did an event for complimentary tattoos. We had a menu set up and ready, and when I got there, there were people lined up around the building waiting to see me and get tattooed. I couldn’t get everyone in, but the fact that people still stood in line, didn’t care, and just wanted to meet me, was very special. Five years ago, I would never have pictured my life now, but I’m just living the dream; I really feel that sense of purpose in life, that I matter and people support what I do.
How do your celeb clients find you?
A lot of them run in the same circles, and honestly, I have Hailey Baldwin to thank. I met her in church when she was 17, and she wanted a tattoo, but her dad wouldn’t let her till she turned 18. When she turned 18, she came to me and got tattooed, and however many tattoos later in the past few years, she’s turned people on to me. Once you’re in, your name just spreads by word of mouth. I’ll occasionally get a DM from a celeb, too.
Tell us your craziest celeb tattoo story.
During last year’s Purpose Tour [for Justin Bieber], Post Malone invited a bunch of us back to his studio while he was making his new album. He was like, “Yo, I wanna get ‘yatted.’” I was like, “I don’t know what that means, but sure, I’ll get two of those.” [laughs.] He wanted the word “WHATEVER” on his palm. We were in the studio, so we were all celebrating, hanging out, having a few drinks. I’m sitting there tattooing Post Malone, I’m almost done, I cross the ‘A,’ wipe it down, he looks at it, he’s like, “I love it!” and I realize… I crossed the ‘V.’ I just messed up Post Malone’s tattoo, so I’m like, “Okay man, good to see you, see you later!” But the whole time I’m thinking, “Man, I messed up his tattoo, is he gonna beat me up and kick my ass, send Justin Bieber after me?!” The next day, he calls me up and asks if I’m gonna roll through, and I’m like, [sheepishly] “Yeah, I’ll roll through!” I get there, and he says, “Hey man, I really love what you did, taking your artistic liberties to cross that ‘V.’ It’s so punk rock.” So I’m like, “Yeah, totally punk rock!” [laughs and makes ‘rock on’ hand gesture.] It worked out, I guess.
What tattoos are most requested from you?
People love my lettering. I handwrite all the lettering you see on my Instagram. People love that it’s my handwriting, that you can’t get it anywhere else. It’s a very special thing. Floral tattoos are definitely something that we do a lot of. They’re very pretty, very elegant, and timeless, which is key. That’s where it is right now: dainty tattoos. I love doing tattoos on the neck because you can make them small, and they’re edgy, but they still look classy.
Any dream clients?
If you’re asking about famous people, I’d really love to tattoo Johnny Depp. I mean, it’s Johnny Depp. He’s got so many tattoos and I’m a fan. So I’m just gonna put that out there. Speak it into existence, you know? But I get to tattoo really cool people every day. Whether you’re nameless or famous, I treat everyone like a celebrity, and I think that’s what’s fun about getting tattooed by me. I want to make sure that you have a good time and get the best tattoo.