If you ask the tattoo artist Jonathan “JonBoy” Valena what his “big break” was, he’ll tell you it was the moment he found God and surrendered himself to his will. More secular observers, however, might say it was the day he found Hailey Baldwin, now Hailey Bieber.
Really, it was a combination of both. JonBoy, a former youth pastor, met Baldwin through Hillsong, the Christian megachurch they both attend. When Baldwin turned 18, she requested her first ink from the artist: her parents’ wedding date written in Roman numerals on her wrist.
“She got the bug,” JonBoy recalled. Baldwin kept coming back to his shop for more, bringing along her friend and now husband, Justin Bieber (who is also a Hillsong devotee), plus Kardashian offspring like Kendall Jenner.
Jenner’s first tattoo was a microscopic, almost-invisible white dot on her middle finger. “But that’s what blew me up,” JonBoy said, still shaking his head in disbelief. He’s since gained over half a million Instagram followers and become the go-to guy for teeny-tiny tattoos inscribed with impossibly fine lines — a technique that was only perfected in the last decade as equipment has gotten more precise. “It showed me a lot about God’s grace and favor,” JonBoy continued, always bringing the conversation back to his faith. “How a little white dot can turn into this.”
We live in a world of teen-tiny things: Tiny houses, cars, sunglasses, bags, and even-tinier headphones. Status and size are intrinsically related these days: The smaller these things are, the more they tend to cost, and the more clout they have the potential to embody. In the last five years or so, barely visible tattoos have also become trendy among models, influencers, celebrities, and the rest of us. You may not have noticed them on the streets or through your various devices because that’s the point: They’re personal. Only the recipient knows they exist. And maybe all their followers, too.
In February, JonBoy opened his first standalone parlor on the second floor of the Moxy Hotel in Times Square. He has tattooed hundreds of people in the small space so far, and estimates he’s tattooed hundreds of thousands more in his entire career. You can find him there most days in his oversize glasses and head-to-toe Gucci getups, hunched over his Gucci monogrammed tattoo table, surrounded by scented candles and Supreme. Most clients found their way there via JonBoy’s Instagram, where he shares close-up images of his work. His non-celebrity fans will wait over a year for an appointment and see his tattoos — which start at $1,000, but have cost as much as $3,500 — as an investment.
For image-conscious people like Baldwin, who can point at their face and honestly call it the “money-maker,” a discreet tattoo makes sense. “They’re easy to wear and easy to hide,” JonBoy explained. Jenner, for example, has “Meow” on the inside of her lower lip. K-Pop artists have come to JonBoy for underground sessions, although he can’t name names. Their tattoos are perhaps the one part of their body they feel are their own. For the rest of us, small tattoos are cute and timeless, immune to the fast-past nature of trends. A tiny version of a word like “money,” for example, written in dainty script, has a different connotation than if it were scrawled big and bold.
“Big tattoos are beautiful, but with art ever-changing, you have to be careful,” JonBoy said. “That’s forever.”
JonBoy, who is 38, doesn’t regret any of his own tattoos. But he admits that his first — a tribal armband inspired by Pamela Anderson’s barbed wire, adapted to look like Jesus’s thorny crown — is an obvious relic of the ’90s.
Art was JonBoy’s outlet early in life. He had a tumultuous childhood as a raver-kid on the North Side of Chicago, where he was bullied at school and joined a skate crew called the “Skatanic Mafia.” At the age of 17, he overdosed on a bad combination of drugs — a near death experience that gave him a direct line to God. “You’re either going to die on this couch and not know me, and burn in Hell, or you can turn your life around and live for me,” God told JonBoy, as he remembers it. He got his first tattoo while attending seminary school in Rhode Island, and wanted something that would remind him of his faith. He started tattooing a few years later, when his faith lead him to become a youth pastor in Iowa. It was there that he met a biker-turned-born-again-Christian-turned-tattoo-artist, who took him under his wing.
JonBoy quietly told me all of this over the span of about 90 minutes on a Friday afternoon. Sessions with JonBoy tend to devolve into something like a confessional, or a therapy session. “I find myself sometimes waking up in the middle of the night and praying for my clients,” JonBoy told me. “They’ve been through so much.” He claims to weigh the stories of all his clients the same, celebrity or not. Which is perhaps why celebrities feel so comfortable sharing their personal lives with him. He and G-Eazy, for example, are getting over their respective breakups together.
In this way, JonBoy leaves a mark on his clients’ lives in more ways than one. When Bieber and Baldwin broke up, for example, he was compelled to keep their flame alive, always bringing the other up in conversation. (Even after tattooing Bieber’s other exes, like Selena Gomez and Sofia Richie.)
“When I tattooed them together, they’d just gotten back together, and I was like, ‘Justin, you know I’ve been talking to your girl about you,’” JonBoy said. “He felt really happy about it. I remember praying for both of them before I tattooed them, and then before they left, Justin prayed for me. It was so special. I continue to pray for them. I remember Hailey being like, ‘Pray for us.’”
A week after JonBoy tattooed the couple, they went to the Bahamas and got engaged. “I feel like I have a way to solidify these relationships,” he said of his practice. “When I tattooed Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner and gave them that butterfly tattoo, boom, they made a little butterfly.” That being said, not every commitment is forever. JonBoy also turned Jenner’s “T” for “Tyga” tattoo into an “L.A.,” when she broke up with the rapper.
The tattoo that Bieber and Baldwin got together most recently was one that confirmed JonBoy’s faith in both the couple and his work. Bieber came in asking for “Grace” written in huge block letters above his eyebrow, “like Post Malone,” whom they both fondly refer to as, “Posty.”
JonBoy, who makes a point to never judge anyone’s wishes, tried to reason with the pop star. “I was like, ‘You’re handsome, bro.’” Perhaps he should downsize the lettering?
“What are you trying to say, Posty’s not handsome?” Bieber replied. (In the eyes of the internet, the pigtailed rapper actually has a “peculiar sex appeal.”)
In the end, Baldwin had the final word. “She was like, ‘No, you can’t get it that big,’” JonBoy recalls. “Get it classy,” she said. “Get it small.”