Book of Days: Royboy Cooper

Today would have been the 70th birthday of larger than life tattoo personality Royboy Cooper; a one time protege of Cliff Raven, owner of the Badlands tattoo shop, producer/star of a successful series of tattoo documentaries, tiger keeper and all around badass.

You can check out some of his videos here on OV:

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 3.06.48 AM.png

Royboy Cooper November 9th, 1945- July 22, 2010
Rest in Peace

Debra Cooper 1986


I recently turned in an article for a new British tattoo zine about the tattoo videotapes that were mainstays in the  advertisment section of tattoo magazines of the late 1980s and early 1990s; highbrow offerings like the more structured documentaries that Michael O. Stearns put out through his Metamorphosis II label, erotic offerings from photographer/anthropologist Charles Gatewood’s FLASH VIDEO line and the gonzo films of the legendary Royboy & Debra Cooper of the Badlands of Gary Indiana. The Royboy series especially captures a time/place in tattoo (and biker) culture that’s really unique and were always among my personal favorites.

This photo, scanned from a 3×5 print in the Occult Vibrations archives, features Debra Cooper with work by Royboy. it was taken at a Tattoo Convention in Tennessee in 1986. You can see more of Royboy and Debra by using the Royboy tag.

Return to the Badlands

I really can’t speculate what Royboy’s motivation was with producing his videos; whether they were intended to document what was going on in Tattoo culture at the time or as an infomercial for his shops I’ll never really know. But you have to appreciate how many times in one video he can fit in his own name. In the flash, in the songs, on tshirts….  It’s all Royboy all the time.

This video, Return to the Badlands, is from 1987. Unlike his later films that feature the work of  other tattooists at conventions, Return to the Badlands was shot at Roy’s shop and features he and Debra tattooing. And working out. And playing guitar.

As with most Badlands videos there was a decent amount of random nudity that I had to cut out, but as a whole these are really amazing time capsules of 1980s tattooing.

Since this video features ‘no gloves’ content I’ll throw in my standard “it was a different time” disclaimer.

Speaking of- how long do you think it’ll be before the average tattooer doesn’t know what Speed Stick deodorant has to do with tattooing?

Am Jam 1991

My first big convention was Schenectady, NY’s AMJAM.
I was barely 18 and we picked it because it promised itself to be the ‘biggest tattoo convention in the world’. When my brother and I got to Albany we landed ourselves into a gigantic snowstorm, which suited us (being from Florida) quite well. I managed to get my foot tattooed by Dave Waugh that weekend and to meet some really great folks.

AMJAM- American Motorcycle Jamboree- was obviously a more biker themed convention but at the time, you took what was available.

We weren’t at the convention the year Royboy and Debra shot this video, regrettably.
It’s a weird one. Weirder than their other videos, truth be told. Roy seems distracted through some of the interviews, Debra is naked in it a lot and it starts/ends with scripted ‘Married with Children’ type banter. The interviewers keep asking if people had a good trip to Schenectady and if they flew or drove. Odd. That said, it does feature:

Guy Aitchison. Back when he had long hair. Long green hair.
Jonathan Shaw talking about Roy’s 10karat diamond ring.
Paul Booth. He was working at Royboy’s booth!

For obvious reasons I cut out all of the nudity and the stuff with the naked ladies, tiger cubs and an infant, but not to worry- I left in Royboy at the dentist,  shooting guns and wearing tiger bling.

Scary Gary. Indiana.

There’s pretty much no way around how eccentric Indiana tattooer Royboy Cooper was. He had tigers and cobras in his shop. He didn’t always wear gloves. He had a mullet and occasionally referred to himself in the third person. He could fill a body suit with nothing but fairy sparkles, dots and lion heads.

He passed away in 2010.

During the 1980s and 90s, Royboy was a mainstay in biker tattoo magazines; and even produced a handful of, for want of a better word, iconic tattoo videos that played out like tapes to be submitted to his insurance agent rather than sold to tattoo collectors.

Royboy’s boat?
His cars and motorcycles?
Lots of fur coats and bling?
They were like rap videos with Royboy and his wife as the stars.

His films are best described as surreal; documents of a bygone era. Half of the people interviewed seemed annoyed, the other half usually wink at the camera, get naked or espouse random unprompted controversial sentiment.

As you can imagine, they’re a trip to watch. It’s hard to present this without seeming like I’m making fun of him, but for my money, Royboy was a true character and these videos are bizarre time capsules of….. something. Christ. I don’t know. Just watch it and love it.