A little more than 10 years ago, Ashland City native Matt Cowley opened Sandman’s Ink Shop to provide customers with tattoos in his hometown.
Cowley, who was unemployed at the time he opened the business, said he has always enjoyed drawing. A friend who often rode motorcycles with Cowley saw his talent and wanted him to design and apply his tattoos. Cowley began practicing on his then-wife and others to hone his craft.
Around that time, he moved to Columbia, Tenn., to work. He struggled with being new to the area and not knowing anyone, so he began hanging out at the now-closed Dream-’N-Ink. After six months, one of the artists saw he could draw and asked him for help.
Shortly thereafter, he was brought on at the now-closed The Ink Lounge, also in Columbia, for an apprenticeship, and worked there for two about two-and-half years.
Cowley came to Ashland City on Mother’s Day in 2011 to visit his mother. He saw a “For Rent” sign on what is now his current business location. The previous building owner, Nell Sanders, was considering renting the space to a pawn shop. After talking to Cowley, however, Sanders said, “This town needs more artwork, not pawn shops.”
With help from his mother, Cowley opened the 1,400 square foot tattoo shop in the former home of an insurance agency.
The name Sandman came from a nickname Cowley received from his motorcycle pal after defending someone from being attacked in a bar fight.
“It was scary for a while, but after the five-year mark, we started taking off. The past four years, business has grown exponentially to where I’m appointment-only and booked three to five months at a time,” Cowley said.
Cowley attributes his success to hard work and making his shop a welcoming environment where many come to just hang out as he did when he found himself alone in Columbia.
“I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. I love what I do. It’s a passion. I enjoy it. They’re paying me to stab them. I try to make them as comfortable as possible and treat them like family,” Cowley said.
Amber Wright is an apprentice at Sandman’s Ink. She said she has apprenticed at other shops, but Cowley sets a different tone.
“I’ve been picking up everything pretty easily compared to other apprenticeships. He definitely knows what he’s doing. Others said they had experience, but they didn’t actually show it. He’s been patient with me. I’ve been able to take everything he’s said and run with it pretty easily,” she said.
Sammy Tish of Ashland City started out as a customer of Cowley’s six years ago, but now considers him a good friend as well as a good businessman.
“If you come in here, you’re going to be a friend for life. He does honest work and doesn’t charge what he should charge. He’s going to be an artist and stay true to his work. It’s legit work, and if anything’s wrong, he has no problem fixing it or working with you,” she said.
Cowley said, “Our goal is for our clients to walk away with a smile and be proud of the work we’ve done. Once it goes on the client, they’re going to be wearing it for the rest of their lives, so it has to be perfect. It’s not what we want, it’s what they want.”