New York-based tattoo artist JonBoy wants to be “the Dr. Woo of the East Coast.” And he’s well on his way — his simple, delicate work has earned a following with the young celebrity set (he counts Hailey Baldwin and Kendall Jenner — to whom he gave her first tattoo — among his clients).
Having relocated from Chicago to New York City five years ago, JonBoy has posted up at West 4 Tattoo, providing his (mostly female) patrons with gorgeous, minimalist ink meant to enhance their natural beauty. The results are unique and inadvertently feminine, making him one of the most newly sought-after artists in the game. But is being a tattooer to the stars all it’s cracked up to be? Ahead, JonBoy opens up about his surprising career trajectory, his unique technique, and the story behind Kendall’s one-of-a-kind ink.
Tell me a little bit about how you got into tattooing. Did you always want to be a tattoo artist?
“I got exposed to tattoos because my grandfather was in the Navy and he had tattoos. So I think growing up and seeing him with tattoos kind of sparked my interest in getting them. I got my first tattoo when I was 19; it was the late ’90s and early 2000s, and tribal type of stuff was cool back then. So the more I got tattooed, the more I was interested in it and thought, ‘Oh, man, this is cool. I love how it works.’
“I never considered myself an artist — even now, I don’t think I’m an artist. Tattooing is my craft. People come in, and I give them what they want. It’s their body, and I offer them a service. If you want something on your body for the rest of your life, I’m just here to give you the best tattoo that you can get.
“I actually originally went to school for something totally different: I went to Seminary, and I was going to be a youth pastor. Total opposite!”
So when did you decide that was no longer your chosen career path?
“Well, I really felt at peace with what I did. The bottom line is that I love people, and I love working with people. I’m just fascinated with people and what they have to offer — and even what I have to offer them. It challenges you when you have to work with someone that’s picky and wants things to be redrawn over and over again. But I love that; I love that it stretches my patience. And I love that you get to hear the stories of why people get what they do, tattooed on their bodies, and what would cause someone to put something permanent on their body for the rest of their life; I get a lot of interesting stories.”
This diamond is forever — literally.
Are there any stories or moments that stand out as the craziest, or even the most meaningful?
“I don’t really [have any], other than tattooing Kendall Jenner and putting a little white dot on her. That was different for me, but at the same time, that’s what she wanted. So that’s what I’m going to give her.
“People always ask me what’s the craziest thing I’ve done, and they’ll look at my Instagram and see a guy with a pencil on his face. And people will respond and say things like, ‘That’s so stupid,’ but I’m like, to that guy, it means to stay sharp in the music and creative industries. And I respect that. But I will have a consultation and say, ‘Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?’ I think that everyone has a reason for getting a tattoo, and if it’s important and meaningful to them, then it’s meaningful to me.
“For me, it’s more of an honor to get to tattoo you. Like, if you come to me and say, ‘I want to get a tattoo from you,’ I’m like, ‘Really? You want me to mark your body for life?’ I don’t take that lightly. I take it seriously, whether it’s the biggest tattoo ever or the smallest little dot that you could ever want.”
Is there a reason Kendall got a white dot tattoo?
“To her, it’s the little things that matter. And the white color was because she didn’t want it to show with modeling and all that. It was a fun night. Hailey Baldwin was there, too, and I’ve tattooed her a few times; she’s tattooed me as well.
“My job is just to create a great experience. I’ve gotten tattooed by tattoo artists where they’re just assholes, and every time I look at that tattoo on me, I just have that negative feeling. And I never want that with my clients. I want them to look at their tattoos, see it, and think, Wow! I love this tattoo and I had the best time of my life, and I didn’t have some weird, creepy dude try to get with me, because there’s a lot of stuff like that out there. I keep it classy; I’m a gentleman. Most of my clients are females, and I think there’s a reason why.”
Hailey Baldwin rocks a lowercase “G” in honor of Georgia, popular pastor Chad Veach’s daughter, who was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder at just four months old.
Have you worked with any other celebrities?
“When it comes to celebrities, Hailey Baldwin has really brought them my way. We go to church together, so that’s how we know each other, and she keeps bringing me her crew. That’s how Kendall got here, that’s how her cousin [Ireland] got here. Justin Bieber will be coming through here sometime, as soon as he’s back in New York. Carlos Leon is another guy I tattoo all the time; he’s Madonna’s ex.
“But honestly, from the famous to the nameless, I treat them all like celebrities. Because I’ve tattooed people like that, they’ve brought me so much business because of their following and influence in the young generation. It’s amazing. I’m busy; I’m booked out because of those guys, and it’s awesome.”
How would you describe your aesthetic?
“I like timeless, elegant, sophisticated, and simplistic. I think less is more. Sometimes you look at tattoos, and there’s so much going on that you can’t even tell what it is. The female body is so beautiful, and when you’re putting something on your body, it should complement the curves and the place you’re putting it, while also being proportioned to your body.”
What is your process like?
“I love taking walk-ins and being able to tattoo on the spot. These little tattoos only take me about 5–10 minutes, so I like being able to keep my days open for people to stop by and get them.
“For the process, it’s just a matter of making sure that you come to me with somewhat of an idea. For the most part, people know what they want, so they basically just come in, we’ll do something on paper until we’re 100% satisfied and happy with the design, and then we go for it.”
Having a whale of a time.
Since they’re so tiny, do they still hurt?
“Of course they hurt [laughs]. But it’s not bad. For most people, if you want something bad enough, you’re going to do it regardless. The first couple of minutes are a little uncomfortable, but once your endorphins kick in, your body just kind of accepts it. I have a pretty light hand, too, and I’m fast, so I have a lot of repeat customers because they love that. I’ve been tattooing long enough now where I can get something done real fast.”
What would you say is your favorite part about what you do?
“I think my favorite part is the art of it, the fact that I get to put something on someone’s body and they get to look at it for the rest of their lives. And the fact that I was the one to put it there; knowing that someone is walking around with a piece of art that I did, that’s satisfying.
“But really, I’m in it for the people. I’m in it because that person wants to be reminded every day that they’re loved. I’m in it because that person wants to be reminded every day that their mom is still with them, even though she passed away from cancer; or reminded that they need to stay strong in life for whatever reason; or even making someone that has issues with the way they look feel more beautiful by putting something beautiful on their body.”
An ode to the Big Apple.
Are there any tattoo artists who inspire you?
“I’ve been looking at a lot of Dr. Woo’s stuff, and people who do a lot of fine-line tattoos. But at the same time, I’m inspired by the traditional, old-school Americana guys. When people ask what I specialize in, that’s usually what I tell them: old American-like sailor tattoos — the skulls, the roses, the daggers, the bold outlines. Because that type of tattooing has to be done the right way; it has to be clean, it has to be bold, it has to be simple. And I think because I understand that side of that type of tattooing, I’ve been able to do these little, simple ones and keep the lines straight. That’s what makes a good tattoo. But I’d say Dr. Woo is the guy that I look up to and want to tattoo like. I want to be the East Coast Dr. Woo.”
What advice would you give someone who’s getting a tattoo for the first time?
“Make sure to look at the artist’s portfolio. The old saying is that you get what you pay for — that good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good. Go in and meet your artist. There’s nothing worse than going through the pain of the tattoo and the pain of sitting with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re getting, who just wants to put the tattoo on you, take your money, and kick you out the door. Find someone that’s going to connect with [you], and find someone that it’s important to.”