Tiger King of the midwest | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Tiger King of the midwest

Before there was Joe Exotic, there was Roy Boy Cooper.

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Roy Boy Cooper was the original Tiger King. - COURTESY ERIC SMOLINSKI
  • courtesy Eric Smolinski
  • Roy Boy Cooper was the original Tiger King.

His forehead studded with peroxide-blond stubble, the back of his neck cloaked by a shock of matching curls. Gold chains. Gold rings. Tattoos strangling his throat. He collects exotic cats and machine guns, and even at a distance, the size of his personality looms large. This might read like a description of Joe Exotic—it's actually Roy Boy Cooper, a tattooer from Gary, Indiana, who's left an indelible mark on the region since the 1970s.

When Tiger King dropped on Netflix on March 20, those familiar with the tattooer were quick to see the parallels. Tattoo enthusiasts even circulated memes declaring, "Roy Boy was the first tiger king!" Cooper died in 2010, but he was famous for his shop the Badlands, a studio opened in the early 80s while tattooing was still illegal in Indiana. Because it was an underground operation, he was free to run the shop as he wanted—a pool table beside the tattoo chairs, a weightlifting gym in the basement, and two floor-to-ceiling chain-link cages for prowling Bengal tigers. When powerful people visited Chicago or played shows in Merrillville, Indiana, they'd make detours to Badlands just to take photos. Cooper tattooed the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Gregg Allman, and Georgette Mosbacher, the current U.S. ambassador to Poland. Wild cats were essential to the image he built.

Cooper's interest in exotic animals came later in life, though it seems almost inevitable for a larger-than-life man who'd always insisted on making his own rules. He was born Roy Craig Cooper in the outskirts of Gary on November 19, 1945. His mother was a beautician, his dad a newspaper printer. When his parents divorced in his early teens, his mom relocated to Kentucky, leaving Cooper and his younger sister to be raised by his father. According to friends, he forged paperwork to secure a driver's license at age 14, then began driving dump trucks to bring in extra money. By 16, he had his own truck emblazoned with "Roy Boy."

Tattooing didn't become appealing until he went to prison around 1971. Cooper had been part of the Invaders, a local motorcycle gang, and was heavy into drinking and drugs, which left him with a contempt for authority and an unchecked temper. He worked at Bethlehem Steel, and once, expecting a helicopter visit from corporate, painted the roof with six-foot-tall letters that screamed "Fuck off." Cooper landed in jail for punching his foreman so hard, it knocked the man's teeth out. But a year later, he emerged a new person: driven, sober, and eager to be his own boss.

After his release, one of the first calls he made was to Cliff Raven, a man who's made so many contributions to tattoo history, it's difficult to summarize. Raven might be best remembered locally for running the only shop to resist closing after Chicago raised its legal tattoo age to 21, making him a lighthouse for would-be tattooers. That shop continues today as Chicago Tattoo Company. Local lore persists that Cooper was apprenticed by Raven, but Dale Grande, the current owner, who worked with Raven then, says differently.

"They really didn't get together that much," Grande explains. "I don't know where he got his machines or his practice or who taught him." It's a question even many closest to Cooper can't answer, but the Raven myth survives as one of many Cooper crafted to project a lucrative, memorable image. He was a man determined to be important—and would borrow from others' mythology until he had his own.

Cooper was married to a woman named Diana for roughly five years before going to prison. In 1978, he met his second wife, Jeanne Fritch, which kicked off his tattoo empire. Fritch was visiting Indiana from Michigan, a curious coed two weeks shy of graduating from a private university. She'd double-majored in history and English and interned for a congressperson, but she'd never seen a tattoo before. Cooper's arms were covered in them. A chance encounter with him as a bar bouncer proved so thrilling, it changed the course of both their lives.

The couple became the perfect pairing of book smart and street smart—two sides of a coin forged from a primal need for life on their own terms. Fritch, who now owns the tattoo shop Personal Art, Inc., was apprenticed by Cooper and encouraged him to consult a lawyer so they could open a shop together. In Indiana, only licensed medical professionals could "pierce the skin with a needle." The spirit of the law was to discourage unlicensed medical practice, but in application—especially as tattooing grew in popularity because of people like Raven and Cooper—towns would selectively enforce it attempting to curb "undesirable" people, such as bikers, who were associated with tattooing.

According to Fritch, the lawyer advised them that Gary was a great place for a shop. Because the city had been steadily declining since the 1960s, residents and local law enforcement had better things to fuss about than a tax-paying tattoo studio that kept to itself. If they registered as a retail business, no one would care. Less than six months after meeting, the couple debuted Roy Boy's Place.

The original sign featured a lone Americana-style eagle and the description "Items of unusual taste"—clues of what awaited visitors that only those in the know would recognize. Inside were things like bongs and motorcycle saddlebags. Just out of view were two cramped offices for tattooing. And even further back was the living area Cooper and Fritch called home.

It wasn't until the shop was successful enough for them to move to a farm that Cooper expressed an interest in big cats. Fritch doesn't recall what prompted it, just that Cooper pored over studying how to prepare and what to expect while raising them. Cooper registered for an exhibitor license with the USDA, though he didn't initially intend for his animals to be public. He built an area for the cats on his rolling property, eventually adopting tigers, lions, jaguars, and panthers. At times, he had other animals, too, including monkeys, bears, and alligators, but his passion was always big cats.

To this day, rumors persist that Cooper bred and sold them, but those closest to him insist this never happened. He was also not licensed for it. He'd tell reporters he had anywhere from 15 to 20 cats, the ones out of view forever "on loan" to others. In truth, the most he ever had at a time was six. These rumors let people believe that not only was he a man who could tame a small army of dangerous animals, but he could also afford it. And even if he wasn't breeding or selling cats, didn't people realize he just as easily could? He was Roy Boy, after all. He could do anything!

During this time, he also taught himself how to take photos and began selling images of his work to biker and nudie magazines. This built a desirability for tattoos and, by extension, himself. Fritch and he discussed expanding into videos. Though she pictured them differently than what they became, they agreed tattoo culture needed recording. By some estimates, his aggressive visual archives of early tattooing helped open the market for tattoo magazines.

In the early 80s, the couple opened the Badlands on Broadway, the main street of Gary. At the time, Gary had one of the highest murder rates in the country, and Broadway was littered with abandoned storefronts and decaying buildings. When the shop appeared—eventually adopting a yellow facade with murals of tigers and skulls and a sign reading "Welcome to the BADLANDS," then smaller, "The Land of Shoot 'Em Up"—it was a tantalizing change, one that positioned the city's shortcomings as strengths.

Not long after, Fritch and Cooper parted ways. He had taken up with Debra Cooper, who began working in the shop at 16 and became his apprentice, tiger handler, and live-in nanny by 17. At this time, Cooper was nearly twice her age, but to this day, she warmly describes him as her best friend and soulmate—kindred spirits who, over their 15-year marriage, became known as King and Queen of the Badlands.

When Debra met Roy, she was a hard-partying teen. "I was doing bad in school," she says. "But when I met Roy, my grades raised. I quit drinking and partying. I was a whole new person." She's remained that person since, now the owner of the couple's late son's shop, also called Roy Boy's Place. During their romance, Debra and Cooper expressed their inextricable bond through matching blond mullets, head-to-toe tattoos, and eye-catching outfits in a range of fringe, leather, and animal prints. Chins out, they'd walk tigers on leashes down Broadway together, Gary royalty ready to greet their court.

When Cooper and Fritch separated, he left his cats with her and moved into the second floor of Badlands with Debra. He adopted new cats, moving them into the shop and beginning to photograph and video himself and clients with them. Over the course of ten years, he and Debra released one video a year that blended footage of playing with tigers, getting tattoos and piercings, shooting machine guns, riding motorcycles, and being naked. There were skits and heavy metal songs, many of which Cooper wrote and played himself. In tattooing circles, the videos are highly sought-after memorabilia that capture a bygone era. (Debra still sells them at her shop.)

They also cemented an idea of Cooper, not as a person, but an experience. He wouldn't come to you. If you wanted that thrill, you had to come to him, in this town everyone else had written off.

Cooper may have struggled to finish high school, but when he was interested in something, he learned it quickly, then exhausted it. For instance, Cooper taught himself to fly and got his pilot's license, gradually buying larger planes that were harder to fly including one that read "Larry Flynt for President." He'd only fly locally, but Debra recalls frequent Chicago flights where they'd get so close to the Sears Tower, she could see the expressions on visitors' faces. When he got bored of flying, he abandoned it, but it's easy to see why a person with this kind of drive and exuberance fascinates people. Simultaneously, this quality could be as draining as it was exciting.

"He needed to push life as far as he could to see what its limits were," Fritch says. "Not what his limits were, what its limits were. He liked to mess with the game."

Sometimes this included messing with people, too. Don Frey, owner of Bugaboo Tattoo, apprenticed under Cooper and worked at Badlands in the early 90s. He recalls regularly arriving at ten till nine to open the shop, and every so often, Cooper would arrive around 8:30 to turn the clocks forward.

"I'd walk in, and he'd start yelling and cussing at me," Frey recalls. "'Shop opens at nine o'clock! Where have you been!' [It became so routine] I'd say, 'You know what? I only go by this clock on my wrist, and I'm ten minutes early. I don't care about your damn clock, Roy.'"

Nick Colella, owner of Great Lakes Tattoo, recalls Cooper e-mailing him aggressive, graphic suicide photos shortly after meeting in the mid-aughts. To him, it felt like a test of what he would put up with. These kinds of antics were common for Cooper—sometimes useful experiments in an industry where it could be hard to identify who was trustworthy. But they also drove many people away, including some very dear to him. Fritch, Debra, and Cooper's fourth wife, Katie, remember him extremely fondly. But they also confess their truths and desires were not always compatible with their marriages.

"I could be looking at a beige wall, and he would have me convinced it was blue," Fritch says. But she also cautions that, unlike Joe Exotic, Cooper could rein himself in before things went too far.

When tattooing was legalized in 1997, it was one of Cooper's biggest fears. (Interestingly, Frey was essential to this legislative change.) He anticipated it as a sign tattoos would become ubiquitous to the point of banal—no longer a visual language for people who, by necessity or choice, colored outside the lines. But this change allowed shops to build niches for different approaches—essential to artists like Fritch and Frey, who have built careers on tattooing as an art form. And it mandated safety standards everyone was required to meet. Exotic animals, on the other hand, are still loosely regulated and fringe enough to be appealing to anyone who wants to say both "I'm wild" and "I'm the boss."

In 1996, Cooper was hospitalized after racing and crashing a dragster outfitted with a jet engine. It left him with a permanent limp and chronic pain later exacerbated by a severe tiger bite. Cooper, who'd avoided all drugs and alcohol since his time in prison, was prescribed painkillers and began self-medicating with other things to manage his discomfort. His health declined, and his behavior became erratic. Every year, taking care of his cats proved more difficult, and in 2010, the USDA rehoused his four remaining tigers, including one he'd adopted from Mike Tyson. Three months later, Cooper died. While it was a confluence of ailments (liver failure, tiger bite, skin cancer), everyone agrees losing his cats contributed.

"He loved his animals," Debra says. "He really, truly loved them." And for better or worse, admirers loved him just as much for them.   v

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