If you don’t know the man, you’ve certainly seen his work. It’s on the right eyebrow of Justin Bieber, on the inside of Kendall Jenner’s bottom lip, and the neck of Halsey. JonBoy’s fine-lined, miniature tattoos have become the hottest accessories for the hottest celebrities.
The sleekness & subtlety of his work make for prime #content on Instagram, where he’s gained more than 600,000 followers from around the world, some of whom come to New York City just to be tattooed by him. Yet despite his high engagement and regular appearances on entertainment sites, he’s always held court in someone else’s shop. Until now.
Earlier this month, the artist born in Chicago as Jonathan Valena claimed his first solo outpost in Moxy Times Square. The second-floor studio is tucked right next to Bar Moxy in the lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing anyone grabbing a drink to watch him at work.
As I walked into the intimate space literally highlighted by a pink neon light fixture bearing his name, two young women took a photo with him—for the ‘Gram, of course. I assumed they had just been tattooed, but nope, they were just fans who popped in. Outfitted with Supreme accessories, Gucci leather on everywhere, an allover-print wallpaper of his face, and a grip of other covetable hypebeast decor, the intimate studio makes JonBoy accessible, a far cry from Dr. Woo’s “secret” outpost inside the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
That’s exactly how he wants it. His clientele may be filled with A-listers, and booking an appointment, let alone being able to afford his work, isn’t a given for everyone. But he doesn’t want to build another wall between him and his fans.
We sat down with JonBoy inside his new space to discuss the decision to branch out on his own, what was important in making it his own, and how his career and the art of tattooing has changed since he first entered the industry in Decorah, Iowa.
You’ve had a large following for years and have been doing high-profile tattoos on celebrities, but you’re just now branching out on your own. What made this the time to do it?
Everything just fell into place. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. But the art is full of networking. Meeting the right people, the right scene. It’s still pretty surreal to me that this is my permanent studio. When I approached Moxy, I was like, “Dr. Woo’s doing it. It works in Vegas. You generate revenue, a lot of parties. I’ve got a lot of people that travel from all over the world to get tattooed by me, so what better place than Moxy hotel?”
These guys are doing some new shit that I’m into. The staff’s friendly. I love Tal Group. Everything is falling into place. It’s something that I’ve envisioned, but it’s all about timing and being ready for it. I learned a lot working at Bang Bang. I learned a lot working at West 4, all the studios I’ve been in, and it’s finally cool to see my name on the door. This is my baby.
What was important in making this space your own?
Making sure that I’m inspired, that I have things surrounding me that inspire me. I feel like I’m in my apartment, really. This is all stuff that I’ve collected. I love having people around me. I want people to see just how tattooing works and just be welcomed.
When you know me, it’s like: “Alright it makes sense that he’s in a hotel. He loves hotels. It makes sense that he’s near K-Town. He loves karaoke.” Any brands or any people I fuck with, it’s because I like them. There’s a relationship there. I want to be around people that are dominating in their field. I love the culture. I love being part of it. I’m lost for words because I’m fuckin’ stoked.
You’ve had a connection with fashion for a while with the events you’ve done, tattooing models, and your Coachella collection. Why is being a part of that world so important to you, and how do you think you fit in?
It’s just cool to be in a time when that’s possible. I would’ve never thought that a tattoo artist would be partnering with brands and doing collabs and capsule collections. Growing up, it’s always something I’ve been into like a shopaholic. When my parents would fight, my mom would takes us to the mall as kind of a safe haven. And being in New York now, I love people watching and seeing what they’re wearing.
Not everyone is going to get tattooed by me, unfortunately. I would love to tattoo everyone, but I’m just one person. I just want people to have a chance to have a piece of me in one way or another, like these cool tees I put out. I have so many ideas in my brain, and I’m inspired by great designers right now, like Virgil [Abloh] and Alessandro [Michele].
Virgil’s in a similar position, where you wouldn’t think a designer like him would end up at Louis Vuitton. A lot of boundaries have been knocked down. If you’ve got ideas you can execute, that matters more than ever.
We live in a perfect time to do that. I remember when I first moved out here, I’m like, “Yo, what’s New York style like? How should I dress out here?” My friend was just like, “New York style is making sure it looks like you put it together. As long as it looks like you put it together yourself, that’s your style.”
You’ve said before that you see your tattoos like accessories. Why is that?
‘Cause they’re small, and I feel like the placement is always key. I just want things to look almost easy to wear. You don’t have to worry about, “Ah shit, I gotta cover this. I’m going into a meeting with my boss that doesn’t understand tattooing.”
These little tattoos have some of the biggest meanings to my clients. I just love how they look. When I approach a tattoo, it’s all in the detail. I see that in how a lot of these designers design their collection, and it doesn’t have to be the big thing.
With the art form changing, people are doing some crazy shit with tattooing that you’re like, “Woah, how did they do that?”
Who are some of the other tattooers who inspire you?
I love watching Oscar Akermo from Sweden. He’s got crazy effects. Mr. K, that guy’s up and coming. He’s next level. I worked around some really good artists at Bang Bang. Anatole, Michelle, Drag, all those guys. That’s the thing I’m gonna miss: being around the other artists. I hope once this gets going, I can have other artists around me and continue to be inspired.
Your growth in popularity has coincided with Instagram, which has raised the profile of a lot of tattooists. What do you think about it becoming such a vital platform for artists?
It’s amazing because back then, the only way you could see my profile was to walk into the shop, and you’d have to look at these pictures that were outdated most of the time. A lot of people weren’t getting tattooed because it’s intimidating to walk into a shop. So it’s really neat that people can follow their favorite artists and see what they’re into, follow their life, follow their work. Back then it was just word of mouth.
It’s an honor that people would ask me to mark their body for life. I just wanna make sure that I do the best work, and I give people the best experience.
How are you able to do that? A lot of people have talked about how comfortable you make them feel.
At the end of the day, I love people. I love learning from people and hearing their stories. I wanna be sensitive to that. The worst for me was when I would get tattooed by someone who was a jerk. Now I look at that tattoo every day, and I think of that experience. I never want that to be the case when you’re getting tattooed by me.
I’m here to offer a service. I’m here to serve. We forget about the word “serve” in customer service.” People are paying their hard-earned money to get work from me, so I’m gonna make sure I work hard for that as well.
You’re known for your fine lines & minimalist work, but you have a much broader skillset. Is there any type of work you’re dying to do?
I love traditionals. So if I could do some cool micro-traditional tattoos, that would be rad. I love doing line work. I love keeping things clean. But I’m open to everything. I feel like I give the people what they want. It’s not about me anymore. It’s not about my glory. Back then, maybe. But I’ve done all that, I’ve won the first-place trophies at conventions.
I just tattooed Luke from Round Two, and he’s like, “Do whatever you want.” I ended up doing this micro-traditional Lady Liberty on his leg, and I did a cartoon dog on his stomach. That’s always fun to do because I love preserving the old folk art. I love doing old flash from the early 1900s, the ‘50s. Those are the guys that paved the way for guys like me to do what I do today.
At the end of the day, I just love tattooing. If the next wave is Japanese style, I want to be doing some cool Japanese tattoos. If the next phase is tribal, I want to do that tribal.
So it really comes down to people not being afraid to ask for something else?
Yeah. But I don’t see these little tattoos going anywhere. I don’t think they’re trendy. People are always gonna want to get these little small souvenirs.
Moxy Times Square
485 7th Avenue (at 36th St)
New York NY 10018
Head here to book an appointment.