Confessions Of A Celebrity Tattoo Artist

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.

JonBoy is a celebrity tattoo artist at Bang Bang Tattoo in New York City. He has worked in the industry for 18 years, and specialises in minimal designs and delicate script that he's inked on Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber, and more. The following story was told to Kelsey Castañon and edited for length and clarity.

I got my first tattoo when I was 19, in the late '90s when tribal armbands were cool. I was like, "I wanna get an armband like Pamela Anderson's — with barbwire and a crown of thorns for Jesus!" The more I got, the more interested I became in the field. I ended up pursuing a career in youth ministry in Decorah, Iowa — mainly because I'm passionate about and genuinely interested in people — and started hanging out at the local tattoo parlour. An old biker guy named Kevin Fitzgerald, who was a recovering drug addict starting his journey of becoming a Christian, worked there, and we just became friends. He asked if I'd like to learn how to tattoo, so I did an apprenticeship with him for a year and a half. Eighteen years later, and I'm doing the same thing.

When I first moved to New York, I tattooed Madonna's ex, Carlos Leon. At the time I was like, Oh man, this is so cool! I remember watching you on stage dancing with Madonna. I thought he was just the coolest, and I couldn't believe I was getting to tattoo him. I've done a few on him since, like the NYC token on his finger and a couple of saints. Then six or seven years ago, I found Hillsong church, and that's how I’ve gotten to meet some of these celebrities.

Before I became a "celebrity tattooer," 90% of my clientele was from Hillsong — the worship leaders, the people attending, the staff. Since then, my life hasn't been the same.

Photo via @jonboytattoo.
JonBoy giving Halsey a wrist tattoo last year.

On Maintaining A Celeb's Privacy
One time G-Eazy and Halsey were coming in to the shop, and before they even pulled up, fans were already sitting out there asking for them. You have to wonder how they know who is coming, and when. No one says anything to anyone, but I don't know, people are so obsessed that they idolise them. I do get it in a way — you've got talented people that you look up to and admire, and getting to meet them can feel really good.

But tattoos can be so personal for some people. They don't want anyone to know. I've had celebrities ask me not to put it up on my Instagram, and I get that. You want to protect them from paparazzi, because that can also get really crazy. I was working with Bella Hadid at my old parlour and people were outside waiting; we had to put screens on the window so no one could get a photo. Bang Bang built a separate room strictly for that reason, since the big windows at the shop make it easy for someone to get a quick shot. Otherwise, I'll do house calls to make sure there's no chance that they'll be photographed.

Photo via @jonboytattoo.
Hailey Baldwin and JonBoy hanging out at Bang Bang Tattoo.

Building Real, Meaningful Friendships
I would say I'm closest to Hailey [Baldwin]. I don’t know how many tattoos she has at this point — maybe 17 or 18, I’ve lost count — but I always try and make myself available for her. I'll get a call and it's like, "Hey, are you around?" And I'm like, "For you, of course." Because if it weren't for her, I wouldn’t have been tattooing Kendall and Kylie [Jenner], Justin [Bieber], or anyone else. All these celebrities have come to me because Hailey said, "Yeah, he's chill — go for it."

I met her and her father four years ago, when she was 17. He was showing me all his tattoos that Kat Von D did and Hailey was like, "Hey dad, can I get a tattoo?" And he said, "When you're 18." So when she turned 18, she came to me and got her parents' wedding dates in roman numerals on her wrist — from then on, she was hooked.

Learning The Downsides Of Fame
I do admire a lot of the celebrities I work with and understand why they're being celebrated, but I don't do what I do to become famous. I'm going to treat anyone who walks through the door like gold — whether people know your name or not.

Sometimes, hanging out with a celebrity outside of the shop can feel like, Holy crap, how do they do this every day? I remember going out to the bar with Kendall and as I was sitting there, I looked out to the crowd and everyone's eyes were on her. People were just staring and trying to sneak pics. She can't even live her life or have a drink without people taking pictures! Now I get why a lot of the time, people just stay home. That's why they keep such a tight circle.

Remembering Your Purpose
I never used to give people a chance, but I do now, and you can learn a lot. It's part of the reason why I am where I am right now, because of the people I've had in my tattoo chair. When I got to tattoo a cross on Justin Bieber's face, I could sense that he was dealing with such heaviness, and then we got to pray together. It was one of those moments I'll never forget, because it really reminded me why I do what I do, why I’m a tattooer and not a youth pastor.

You're sitting there and you’re still being a light to people. I get to hear their stories, and I get to share my love. I'm challenged every day to love on those people, you know? And that's exactly what this world needs more of right now.

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