With fewer than 100 days left in the year, Jennifer Gilley, owner of Sundog Art Studios in downtown Lynchburg, had 100 requests for appointments and had to turn down half of them.
She’s only been open for about a year.
“I’ve been so welcomed into this community. It feels great,” said Gilley, who is a tattoo artist. “Even the businesses, my neighbors, feel like family here and I just like working with my clients. Most of my clients now are healing and dealing. I’ve tattooed people that have lost their mothers or children, they’ve gone through something or are covering scars.
“You know, everybody’s got a beautiful story. But tattoos can be fun, too. They don’t all have to have a meaning. They can make you feel sexy, whatever. But I say, if I don’t cry here twice a week, I haven’t done my job. Like it’s literally an emotional bonding,” she said.
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Gilley, 40, moved her studio into 815 Main Street in May 2021 and opened the following September.
She attended an art magnet school, had been doing temporary tattoos in Myrtle Beach since she was 14 and continued doing so on cruises after college. Permanent tattooing wasn’t legalized in South Carolina until 2004, so Gilley didn’t have a single tattoo and had only been into one shop.
In 2006, at age 24, Gilley landed herself an apprenticeship under a tattoo artist named “Boot.” She said he was skeptical of her at first, only allowing her to shadow him and take out the trash.
“I guess he just didn’t get tired of me and saw some potential,” she said.
Ironically, as a temporary tattoo artist, Gilley said the idea of blood with permanent tattooing made her nervous, but after two years under Boot’s mentorship and seeing his passion for the art, she realized there is so much more involved with the art form.
“One of the biggest things about tattooing is the relationships I build with my clients,” she said.
Being confident in her tools and learning from her mentor guided Gilley in completing her first tattoos.
“I was very lucky that my friends and family believed in me and that helped me get past the fear,” she said. “I mean, the first tattoo I did was on my mentor’s hand and that was the most stressful one. I just started small.”
Though it’s just Gilley right now in the 2,400-square-foot space, Sundog Art Studios has room for five artists. She wants to maintain a family-type atmosphere.
“I hire people that have similar values that I have and have similar passions and community awareness,” she said. “So I’m not in a big rush. I can stand on my own legs here and I’ll wait until the right person comes along.”
She’s been lucky to see the changes within the tattoo industry, from allowing women to even be in the shop, to the upgraded tools, ink and artists.
“Women were seen on TV with tattoos and they became more mainstream,” she said. “People saw their kids or friends get tattooed and with that comes an explanation of why they got it and gives them an opportunity to tell a story.”
Now, doctors, nurses and teachers make up the top 30 percentile of Gilley’s customers.
Gilley has had several clients who she’s been tattooing for a decade and said it’s been a joy to see them go from shy young people into confident adults.
“I think it’s a symbol of strength and being able to go through a trial. And also, if it’s done well, it defines your muscles and it’s like wearing armor,” she said. “You have this piece of artwork on you that you’re really proud of and looks good on you so it makes you feel sexier. It makes you feel proud. It makes you want to show it off.”
Bryan Engelke, Gilley’s boyfriend and client, has been working on getting a “sleeve” tattooed on his entire left arm.
He said the tattoo has made him feel like he visually stands out more as people notice the various designs and colors on his arm.
“For me though, it’s the art I love and it’s just amazing,” he said. “But it’s also a healing process for a lot of clients.”
This is what Gilley calls “pain replacement therapy.”
“To me, just knowing that they’re walking around feeling proud and feeling better and having this armor on them to help them protect them from whatever pain they were suffering helps me be OK,” she said.
She works with a lot of veterans and for some, she is the only person they have allowed to touch them in years.
“If I’m tattooing on their chest, for example, and I can tell they can’t bear it, I just tell them to think about what they went through, that loss, that really hard thing, and know that this cannot be worse than what you went through. When we’re done, they have a beautiful piece of artwork in places of pain,” she said.
Morgan Joyner and her mom got matching tattoos from Gilley earlier this month to signify their faith and relationship.
“I loved how detailed and organized Jen was. Jen is very down to earth, you can tell she takes her work very seriously but she’s very laid back at the same time and will converse with you too which makes you feel comfortable,” she said. “The matching tattoo has more than just meaning in the tattoo between my mom and I, it now has very memorable meaning from Jen giving us the tattoo and how amazing the experience is every time I am around her.”
Kevin Bagby has been a client of Gilley’s for a little more than a year now and said he believes she is an incredibly talented artist.
“One who can take a concept and turn it into a custom design unlike any other design out there,” he said. “You get something unique to you and I find that truly special. I’ve gotten to know Jen over the past year and am honored to call her my friend. She is one of the best artists and overall people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.”
Gilley does bigger pieces now that last five to six hours per day — sometimes even 10 hours — and that will be her only client that day but one day per week she does Tiny Tattoo Tuesdays and will do six pieces in one day. On average she sees about seven to eight clients per week.
“My biggest thing is word of mouth. I mean, these people are telling their friends and families,” she said. “People love tattoos and they’re proud of them so they show them off.”