Jonathan “JonBoy” Valena has made a name for himself in the tattoo world, not only for inking the likes of models like Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin, but for his undeniable artistic talent. His tattoos are small and delicate—a feat not easily mastered by just any artist—and that’s what makes the New York-based tattooer such a sought after name. That, and his own fascinating story: he went from studying youth ministry to carving out a career in tattooing.
On July 27 and 28, JonBoy spent hours doing free tattoos for his Toronto fans at Yorkdale Mall. Though his celebrity clients have certainly helped bolster his reputation, this guy is “here for the people,” whether they’re famous or not. He’s currently spreading the tattoo love at Bang Bang Tattoos in NYC—but you better make an appointment; with his popularity, we doubt JonBoy’s able to take walk-ins.
FLARE got the chance to sit in JonBoy’s chair to chat about what it’s really like tattooing celebs, the intersection of fashion and tattoo artistry, and how rejection from his church pushed him to hone his true calling.
How did you transition from studying youth ministry to becoming a tattoo artist?
It was quite a shift. The church I was working for told me I was doing the work of the devil, and I felt like [tattooing] was my calling all along. I felt like God was urging me to be a tattoo artist because people that normally wouldn’t step into a church are in my chair; people that are broken and dealing with things. I get to be there and be their psychiatrist for that time. I might not be behind a pulpit preaching, but I feel like I preach every day with my life, and that’s what people are looking for: genuine people. So many people have been hurt by someone that they’ve looked up to because [that person] feels like they’re superior. I’ve been through things and, man, how many times clients in that chair have helped me in my life.
It seems like it’s really important for you to create a bond with your clients.
It’s so important because they’re trusting me with their body, so I want to make sure that the tattoo I put on them is perfect and that they have the best experience. The worst is when I look at a tattoo, and the guy that tattooed me was an asshole. I’ve got that attachment to that tattoo, and I hate that. I would hate for someone to feel the same about their tattoo that I’ve done.
One of your tattoo clients was Hailey Baldwin, but I’ve heard she tattooed you, as well. What was that experience like?
I love Hailey. I met her at church with her father when she was 17. She was asking her dad if it was okay to get tattooed at 17 and her dad was like, “No, but when you’re 18, go for it.” She got her first tattoo—her parents wedding date on her wrist—and since then she’s been hooked. I let her tattoo me because I love her to death and it just made sense. I wanted a Bible verse, and since we go to church together, I was like, ‘I want you to do it.’
Was she a natural?
I mean, you know, it was her first one.
Do you feel more pressure when you’re tattooing celebrities?
I approach everyone the same, but at the same time, of course. You’re like, “Oh man, this is Bella Hadid, everyone is going to see this tattoo,” or “This is Hailey Baldwin, and she’s all over the place.” You want to make sure that when that person is rocking your art, it’s flawless and it looks good. I mean, Justin Bieber’s face! That man is a handsome young man; I don’t want to ruin that.
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It must have been painful tattooing his face.
For both of us. (Laughs.)
Is there anyone you’d love to tattoo that you haven’t yet?
I’m here to tattoo anyone and everyone who wants to get tattooed, but I would love to tattoo Johnny Depp. I feel like he gets small tattoos anyway and he’s a legend. I admire him. I’d love to get him in the chair.
How did you discover your personal style of tattooing?
I approach tattoos in a fashion sense, because I pay attention to detail when I’m shopping or when I’m people-watching or looking at new collections. It’s all about aesthetics, and my tattoos show that. I make sure that it’s not too big or small for the body part. I always want tattoos to look like they belong. There’s nothing like a good tattoo that’s misplaced; it throws everything off. I want to make sure that it’s aesthetically pleasing.
And speaking of fashion, you designed a shoe for the footwear company Koio.
Yeah, that was neat! I have a new respect for people who are in the fashion world, doing design, because it took us maybe a dozen mock-ups before I was 100-percent happy with the outcome of the sneaker. I had such a great time. To be able to say that I did a shoe is awesome. I’m a sneaker-head; I love shoes.
What’s the story behind the first tattoo you ever got?
I got this tribal armband in the ’90s. This was when Pamela Anderson of Baywatch was relevant. I wanted to get a tribal armband, but I wanted it for Jesus, so I said, “Let me get not a barbed wire, but a crown of thorns.” An old biker guy on Rhode Island did it. I remember going to a few different shops because I said, “If I don’t get a tattoo today, I’m never going to get a tattoo.” I had to go to every shop before they did it. And after my first tattoo, that was it.