Cody Cooper, 18, stands by a photo of his late father, Roy Boy Cooper, inside The Badlands tattoo shop in Gary, which recently reopened, four years after Roy Boys death. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 30, 2013 6:05AM
Cody Cooper got his first tattoo at age 13, which surprised me because I figured he would get one much earlier in life.
His father is Roy Boy Cooper, the iconic, colorful and memorable tattoo artist who died in 2010 after inking thousands of body parts in his day.
“Hell, if I knew I’d be around this long, I would have done things differently,” Roy Boy once told me while lifting weights in the basement of his landmark Badlands tattoo shop in Gary.
After a few more reps, he let out a long groan and changed his mind. “Ah hell, who am I kidding? I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
I now wonder if part of his long-term plans or dreams were for Cody to take his place someday. At that time, Cody was just a young kid, hanging out at his dad’s business, which was famous for having tigers as pets.
These days, Cody is 18 and walking tall in his old man’s boots. He recently reopened The Badlands shop at 38th and Broadway, offering tattoos, piercings and a hint of nostalgia from his father’s glory days.
“He told me wanted me to do this, keep the legacy going,” Cody told me last week when I visited The Badlands a month after it opened.
Cody clearly resembles his dad though he’s more quiet and unassuming than Roy Boy, who was well known for his gregarious behavior and larger-than-life persona. It’s a tough role to fill for Cody, but he’s doing it like his dad did – one tattoo at a time.
The Badlands was once comprised of two buildings, one on each side of Broadway. The shop on the east side of the street burned down from a fire, and the one across the street has been burglarized and ransacked since Roy Boy’s death.
Cody and his cohorts — tattoo artists Bob “Lucky” Striker, Daniel “The German” Contreraz, and enforcer Aaron Todd — have cleaned up the joint, restocked it, and hung an “open for business” shingle. (For more info, visit Cody’s Facebook page or call 884-4965.)
“Everybody knew Roy Boy. He put the Midwest on the map for tattoos,” said Contreraz, 23, who talks enough for all four guys. “Roy Boy would be so proud of Cody for doing this. Most 18 year olds are out partying and doing stupid stuff, but Cody is trying to keep his dad’s legacy going. We have Cody’s back 200 percent.”
Striker, of Chesterton, said his first tattoo was inked by none other than Roy Boy himself and he’s been addicted to them ever since. Todd proudly serves as the shop’s bouncer of sorts in case any trouble arises. Standing together outside the shop, the fearsome foursome looks like the Soprano’s mob in front of Tony’s “Bada Bing!” strip club in Jersey.
“I’m the muscle here and you have to deal with me when you walk through these doors,” Todd said as cars whizzed past along Broadway.
“We want to keep the place rockin’ for Cody and Roy Boy,” said Striker, who at age 26 is the oldest of the crew.
“Roy Boy’s for life,” Contreraz added.
Roy Boy, who once told me he didn’t think he would live to be 64 years old, both intrigued me and intimidated me. But he was always kind, welcoming me into his store, and open to any questions I had. His life’s attitude was always, “to the fullest,” he once told me while stroking one of his beloved tigers.
As I wrote before, tattoos are no longer strictly for drunken sailors, dangerous convicts, and motorcycle gangsters. And tattoo shops are no longer strictly seedy, hole-in-the-wall joints on the bad side of town, though The Badlands can pass as one.
“They love us out here. This place is a landmark in Gary,” said Contreraz, who formerly worked with Cody’s mother, Debra Cooper, who owns Roy Boy’s II in Lake Station.
On the day I stopped by, Debra also stopped in to check on things. She’s obviously proud of her son, carrying on the family business at such a young age.
“He can use all the publicity he can get,” she said as a young woman walked in asking for a body piercing.
In the back of the store are empty cages that Roy Boy used to keep his tigers penned, and Cody hopes to bring in a few new tigers someday. The feds confiscated the earlier ones, he said.
People from all walks of life are now adorned with tattoos, an ancient art that has transformed into a permanent fad. Thanks in part to all the reality TV shows that paint a pretty picture of tattoo artists and their hipper-than-thou patrons.
Body art is as old as mankind, with origins of charcoal body painting tracing back to the genesis of fire itself. Experts claim the word’s etymology goes back to the 18th century Polynesian word “tatau” or “tatu,” later changed into English as “tattoo.”
“Tattoos are like potato chips,” explained Contreraz, whose body is adorned with them. “You can’t stop at just one.”
Contreraz and Striker say Cody has the natural talents of his father, as well as of his mother. Coupled with his upbringing at both tattoo shops, he’s destined for success.
“People are stopping by just to say congratulations,” Contreraz said.
“I just fell in love with tattoos,” explained Cody, who lives in Lake Station.
Last Monday, he posted on his Facebook page: “(Three) years ago today at 4 pm my dad made his way up stairs. I love and miss him so much. I’m gonna do my best to run the shop. I will refuse to fail! I love and miss you so much. r.i.p roy boy. Hope ur up there watchin me and the shop!”
Cody, I’m sure he is, “to the fullest.”
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