Even if you don't know Jonathan Valena's name, you've most definitely seen his work. Better known as JonBoy, the Filipino-American tattoo artist is the guy who tattooed that white dot on Kendall Jenner’s finger back in 2015.
Just this past January, Bella Hadid went to him for a pair of angel wings on her feet, commemorating her status as a Victoria’s Secret Angel. What characterizes the appeal of JonBoy's tattoos is the way he's able to get a lot of detail onto a small surface.
His style of fineline tattooing results in small tattoos with a lush richness. Sure, they can easily be covered up (which helps when you're a professional model or actor), but the art really outshines its often small size.
A native of Illinois, Valena wanted to be a youth minister from an early age. While attending Bible College in Rhode Island though, he switched course, apprenticing at a tattoo shop. While that led to a schism between him and the church for a time, Valena eventually re-dedicated himself to his faith, and it remains a huge part of his life.
The 37-year-old tattoo artist is a member of Hillsong, a New York City megachurch known for its young congregation, stylish pastor, and A-list attendees like Justin Bieber, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and Nick Jonas.
JonBoy's big break came when he met Hailey Baldwin and tattooed her. That chance meeting brought him more celebrity clientele. But he's more than willing to tattoo everyone else—you usually just have to get on his wait list.
Based out of West 4 Tattoo in New York City's West Village, JonBoy’s prominence has grown significantly over the past few months. One of the ways he's making his work more accessible to the people? He's partnered with several brands on collaborations and tattoo pop-ups. He's linked with Schott to do commemorative flash art to celebrate the birthday of legendary tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins—better known as Sailor Jerry.
This past New York Fashion Week, he linked with luxury sneaker brand Koio Collective to make a collaborative sneaker, and set-up a pop-up tattoo studio in their Soho store. Then he teamed up with GRLFRND Denim on a special collaboration sold exclusively at colette.
His latest project? A partnership with Nike. JonBoy and Nike are celebrating the Month of Max with a limited-run of flash tattoo art at their Sneakeasy showroom in New York City. He'll be tattooing all week long. We caught up with the 17-year industry veteran about stigmas against ink, his art, and why someone would want a Swoosh tattoo.
How do you think that the culture behind tattoos has changed since you started doing this?
When I first started tattooing, I was tattooing a lot of the outlaws and biker babes. People that were a little more rough-and-tumble. Nowadays, I get to tattoo people in the professional and fashion world which five years ago I would have never done. 5-10 years ago people weren’t getting tattooed if you were an actor on the big screen or a model—that would discourage you from getting certain jobs—but that’s changed.
Do you think tattoos are less socially taboo because of mainstream celebrity support?
It’s definitely helped. I feel like it’s always going to be taboo, and yes, celebs are getting tattooed and we’re seeing them in the media, in magazines, and on the big screen, but it’s still taboo. It takes a special someone to mark their body for life and not everyone is into it. People are going ahead and saying, "this is important to me and I want to mark my body with this tattoo."
How do you see yourself changing the stigma around tattoos?
The coolest thing someone told me is: “You made it OK to get these tattoos.” Before I was doing these tattoos, even a couple years ago, I was a bit of a tattoo snob. “This isn’t a real tattoo, you gotta get something that’s a dagger or a skull or a rose,” because that’s what I was into, that tattoo imagery.
But I was turning away a lot of people, and I found myself turning away a niche, people that deserve to get tattooed. It’s their decision; it’s their body. I feel like I’ve made it OK for people to get these small tattoos. Whether it’s a big tattoo or a small tattoo, you’re still getting in the chair and saying: “Mark me for life.” It might not be your style to get a big sleeve, but you don’t have to. That’s why I love my tattoos—because they can look like little accessories on people.
And those small designs are essentially your niche now?
I never thought I’d be where I am today, where the demand for these specific types of tattoos is so high. They’re just little tattoos, you know?! You think that to be a successful tattoo artist you have to be doing the big back pieces and sleeves, but that’s not what people want.
I just like to keep things classy, sophisticated, and sexy at the same time! I like to keep things timeless. I like doing tattoos where 20 or 30 years from now, you aren't going to be tired of it because it's not some trendy piece of art that everyone’s getting right now, and next year isn't cool anymore. I’d like to think I’ll keep doing these little tattoos until my hands say "no more." These types of tattoos are here to stay!
Your faith plays a large role in your life. How does that affect your work?
My faith is everything. My main thing is to love on people. God has called us to love on people. It’s not about what you do, or if you go to church, or give money to the church, that has nothing to do with anything. God said the most important thing was to love him and to love people, which is why I wanted to become a youth minister—because I care about people.
And if I can do that in a tattoo chair, then I’m happy. Maybe they want to remember a loved one or symbolize a new chapter in their life. I tattoo broken people every day so my job is to do a great job, give you the best experience, and show you love.
You just collaborated with Nike on a selection of Air Max-themed tattoos. Can you tell us a little about those designs?
I’ve been rocking Nike’s in one way or another since I was a toddler, and I’ve always loved all their collaborations and partnerships. So when they had approached me to do this event, I knew they were coming to me because of my distinct style of tattooing, and because I’m involved with people in the world of fashion.
So as a result of that, I wanted to come out with something special that represented my background while still using designs that represented both Nike and the Air Max shoe. I had the idea to use clouds as a design because that’s how it felt when I was walking on these new VaporMax—they’re the most comfortable Air Max shoe I’ve ever worn. I wanted to include the lightning bolt because we’re New Yorkers, and as New Yorkers we’re always on-the-go—and of course “Just Do It” because it’s such a classic.
The moon and the stars were added into the design sheet to represent “don’t sleep on these sneakers"—because they’re fire! I also wanted to make sure I use my lettering, since that's what I’m known for, and Old English [lettering], because I feel it’s so relevant to the fashion world today.
You have established fashion labels like Gucci and Chrome Hearts using Old English font, along with new brands like Vetements, so I wanted to capitalize off of that. The 3.26 design is in honor of Air Max Day, so I wanted to create a series of numbers that played off of that.
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