At Home With JonBoy: The Tattoo Artist Opens up About His Life and Wardrobe
At Home With JonBoy: The Tattoo Artist Opens up About His Life and Wardrobe
- Words Lawrence Schlossman
- Date February 28, 2018
Assuming you live in New York City, odds are you know somebody who’s been tattooed by JonBoy, born Jonathan Valena. The prolific tattoo artist also counts quite the celebrity clientele, famously inking Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin to name just a few. The man is a minimalist master whose fine, clean lines have since become a trademark and worldwide calling card. We recently met up with JonBoy at his new LES apartment to talk about reconciling his personal faith with tattooing and his most powerful clothing memories. Read our conversation below before shopping JonBoy’s personal collection of hyped-up streetwear and high-fashion.
JonBoy will be donating a portion of all proceeds from this sale to Teen Cancer America.
Photography by Chris Fenimore.
Just real quick, for anyone who is reading this who maybe doesn't know about you, just sum yourself up real quick. Who are you and what do you do?
Man, I'm a New York City tattoo artist from Chicago who loves fashion, loves shopping, definitely a shopaholic, borderline hoarder. I love it. I love collecting, I love stuff, and I like the stories that these things have attached to it.
I think anyone who follows you on Instagram would say that you are definitely a borderline hoarder with all the stuff that you own. When did you first get into fashion? Is there a moment that you can remember or pinpoint it?
It's crazy. I'm going to get a little deep. My mother always took us shopping, and it was a way to get away from my father who was abusive and an alcoholic. Living in Chicago we would just go to the mall to get away from home.
It was an escape.
Yeah, definitely. I think it's just how I always coped with things.
A bit of retail therapy?
Yeah, retail therapy. That is a thing. The comfort of having things, especially being Filipino, and not having much. I had nothing. I was born in a Salvation Army hospital because we couldn't afford the good doctors. But regardless, I'm here, I'm a miracle. But yeah, and it's crazy to see how far I've come. It's crazy because you look at this stuff, and it's cool to look at and have, and think, "Ah, cool. I'm grateful and enjoying it." God's not mad that I get to enjoy these things. I own this stuff, but we have to make sure that it doesn't own us. I feel like sometimes when we get so caught up in being materialistic that's all that we think about.
Would you say that the lifestyle portion of who you are and the clothing that plays it up is part of you selling yourself as a tattoo artist?
I guess you're right.
You clearly want to have an image. It might not be super conscious, but I was just wondering if that is something that you do ever think about.
I think it's just something that I'm attracted to. To your point, yeah, I think it does. I mean, I love Gucci. It makes me smile. It makes me happy. The story behind Gucci and what it means to me all goes back to my mother. She had this old, red Gucci tote. She was a Gucci bag lady. She carried it with pride. In the Filipino culture you rock your Gucci and it’s a status symbol. But, at the same time, we were going to Sizzler and sneaking all-you-can-eat shrimps into that Gucci bag because we were poor. That's what I attach to the brand. Now, it’s a lifestyle thanks to Alessandro Michele.
I don't think there's people out there asking you to necessarily justify yourself though, right? You can just like something just because you like it.
You're right, but sometimes you have to kind of defend yourself. I'm not a fashion guy. I just do tattoos, and I like cool things. You don’t have to be snobby about it. That part I don't understand. Lauren [JonBoy’s manager], she loves this stuff, and I learned so much from her. She actually introduced me to the new Gucci. I was like, “Wait, what? Gucci is good again?” They're using the coolest imagery and the art behind it all is just inspiring. Now that I think about it, this is the stuff that I purposely keep around me that inspires me as an artist. I'm looking through the magazines, and I'm looking at these models like, "Man, what if we can put tattoos on them like little fashion accesories.”
Speaking of tattooing and fashion, and how they kind of intertwine, was there one that you fell in love with first? When did your love of tattoos happen?
Growing up, my grandfather had tattoos from his time serving in the Navy. He had a rose tattoo for my grandmother. She hated it. I remember thinking it was so cool, the rose on my grandfather's arm, and from then on I knew that I wanted one. Obviously, there’s the rebellious side of it too. I got my first tattoo when I was 19. I got a crown of thorns. I walked into the shop and I was like, "I want one of them Pamela Anderson barbed wires, but a crown of thorns for Jesus." That's what I got. The first shop I went to was closed. So I went to another shop and they were booked. I remember thinking to myself, "Man, if I don't get one tonight, I'll never get one.” Eventually I walked into this biker tattoo parlor, and he just drew it on me. That was that, and it was the coolest thing. I was already thinking about my next one just because it was all so meaningful to me. I was like, "This has to do with my faith." I wanted that crown of thorns because it represented being crucified with Christ, and just walking with Christ daily, never forgetting what he went through. That was my reminder. From there, I just kept adding.
How does one go from getting a crown of thorns at 19 on a whim become one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world? Did you always draw?
I doodled little cartoons. I would draw The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and things from that era. Then I got into comic books and was drawing comic book characters. That was the extent of my artwork.
It was casual. Just a hobby.
Yeah, I wasn't a fine artist or anything like that. Getting into tattooing was actually really difficult for me. The more I got tattooed, the more interested I became. Most of the tattoo artists discouraged me from getting into the industry so I gave up any dream of becoming a tattooer. I never thought it was ever going to happen and found my path going into seminary. I wanted to be a youth pastor. That was my plan. I had been through some things— I almost OD’d—and had an encounter with God. I decided I had to live my life His way no matter how hard that was. So I went into seminary, and I eventually became a youth director. I was making coffee, serving cupcakes, and then on Saturdays preparing a message to speak to the youth of Iowa for the next day. While there, I started hanging out at a local tattoo parlor.
Were you getting tattooed there too as well?
Yeah, I was getting tattooed by Kevin Fitzgerald of Valhalla Tattoo. He too had just turned his life around from being an outlaw to seeking a higher purpose. We encouraged one another because of where we were in life at that time, trying to stay on the right path. So, I would just hang out, and Kevin would tattoo me. I would help him out by answering the phones, helping customers, taking out the trash, cleaning the shop, whatever. One day Kevin asked, "You want me to teach you how to tattoo?" i was overwhelmed with emotions. I told him, "I'm not good enough and I don't have the money to pay for an apprenticeship", but Kevin was like, “Don’t even worry about it. Let me teach you and you can pay me back.” That was the deal. That's how I started my apprenticeship under this old biker dude. We would go to bike rallies and do tattoo pop-ups. He taught me how to make needles, build tattoo machines, make tattoo pigment—he taught me everything.
How long is a tattooing apprenticeship typically?
It depends on who's apprenticing you. For me, I apprenticed for a year and a half. Kevin said I was ready, and then you just go do your thing. It was actually kind of frustrating because during my apprenticeship I always wanted to quit because I was so anxious. When am I going to start tattooing for real? When am I going to finally lay it on skin? I'm tired of tattooing grapefruits. I'm tired of tracing over, and over, and over again. I'm tired of making needles. I'm tired of running this guy's errands. But then there’s that part of you that knows that this guy really loves you and is trying to help you understand what an apprenticeship is really about. I wasn’t making any money, and I also had the church telling me I shouldn't be around these kind of people. I was torn. The church ended up asking me to leave.
They made you pick between the two things you loved?
Exactly. It was hurtful. That's when I kind of fell off the path because I suddenly felt like I couldn’t trust those I had put all my faith into.
I’m sure it felt like rejection.
Absolutely, but you know who accepted me? The tattoo community. The outlaws. The misfits. The people that got tattooed. They didn't care, you know what I mean? I knew that I could tattoo them and still have faith. I still had God's love in my heart.
You were able to reconcile those two things whereas the church could not. When you started tattooing did you already have a style or is that something that has developed over time?
I had no specific style at the beginning. 'Style' was something the customer picked off a wall. The only 'custom' back then was changing the colors up. That was frustrating because back then all these people wanted to get the same barbwire, same eagle, same flash designs. Pre-made designs on the wall, that’s what you got. Eventually we started breaking out of that. Let's add some letters in here, some words. That's when I started becoming an artist.
How did your style develop into the signature minimalism you’re now known for?
I love old school traditional Americana. That was my thing. I was trying to develop my style throughout the years, trying to do custom, trying to be a realism guy, then painterly, then black and gray. I finally decided I'm just going to do old school, traditional bold out lines, simple colors. Do some peppery whip shading. Cartoony, very loose, that's what I wanted to do, and that's what I was perfecting. I was taught that it's all about your outline. Make sure you put on a nice, clean line and that's it. All the other stuff will just come naturally. Thanks to my background I'm able to do these precise outline tattoos and keep my hands steady because of that old school background of tattooing. These tattoos I do now I was saying no to three, four years ago. Now, I'm using a wireless rotary machine, so I'm able to move around, and maneuver these clean lines, and adjust myself accordingly to how the client is sitting. How did that develop? It was saying 'NO' to a lot of these people. Telling people, "I can't do that. Sorry, it's gonna have to be this big. I'm not going to be the one to do that for you." I then realized I was saying 'no' too much and then you eventually see how many people you’re turning away...
Eventually the demand makes itself very clear.
Right. So I figured I would try it myself. It took me a while to get to where I am today with my setup.
It’s trial and error, right?
We didn't know tattoos could look like this years ago, and I wasn't doing fine line tattoos. But now I enjoy it, and it looks so cool on someone’s body. Who knew tattoos could be so discreet, so sophisticated.
I think that minimalism and sophistication is clearly why so many fashion people are drawn to your tattoos specifically. Was that surprising to you?
Oh for sure. It's still surprising. I do outlines well, but yeah I'm still trying to understand the fashion world. It's so interesting to me. I want to be in it so that I can be inspired by the style and creativity the designers.
When it comes to tattooing celebrities, is that something that just happens organically?
Absolutely. You shouldn't chase after any of that because if you do then you're going to end up in the wrong place. You should always be good with people. If you're nice and you treat everyone like gold, like you would a celebrity, then you’re set forever. What does it even mean to be a celebrity? That you’re celebrated, right? That's how I look at people. Everyone’s a celebrity. We should all be celebrated.
What’s it like when people see you in that light and treat you as a celebrity yourself?
It's crazy when people are like, "I need a picture with you”. It’s cool that people are ultimately acknowledging me and my art. That's amazing. Social media helps for sure. I get to post my work for the world to see.
For you, Instagram is a living, breathing portfolio that’s being updated in real time.
Yeah. You get to watch what I'm doing, and you get to be inspired by what people are marking on their bodies forever. You're being part of someone's process, big or small, whether it be the healing or the growth. Or victory or whatever. You're part of that, and you want to make sure that you give them the best experience that they can ever have so when they look at that tattoo there's nothing negative attached to it. I make sure my clients get the best experience. I'm living the dream, dude.
What’s next for the tattoo artist who seemingly has it all?
I'm ready to open up a shop. I'm ready to have my own place where I can pick the artists who want to work with me, where I can be fair with the artists, and have a place where people are welcome. You’re going to get to listen to the type of music you want to listen to. I want to have a shop that's a bit Gucci-inspired. I want to have a place where I can keep tattooing the beautiful people of New York City.
Anything you want to add before we wrap?
Yes, a percentage of profits will be going directly to cancer research. I believe strongly in this cause as most everyone I encounter has been affected by cancer one way or another. Also, you know what would be cool? If anyone cops something from my sale tag me in a pic of you rocking it. I'm curious to see how people style it. I just might shout you out on my Instagram.