As a pulsating techno beat booms inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Miami, dozens of spectators watch a petite redheaded MC wearing green-and-black striped tights, a lace corset, and a fake carnival barker's mustache. "Now we have Coco!" she bellows into a mike. "The big baby!"
The crowd hoots and whistles as Coco Stabs saunters onto the stage. His bushy blond hair is pulled into tight buns, Björk-style. The blush on his cheeks softens his imposing 350-pound, six-foot-three frame. His gut hangs over white-and-green boxers, and a baby's bib covers the Sacred Heart of Jesus and eagle's wings inked on his broad chest. On his left hand, an outline of brass knuckles rises from his flesh thanks to a subdermal implant, a type of jewelry surgically placed beneath the skin.
Coco turns briefly to reveal four stainless-steel clamps pinching through the skin between his massive shoulder blades. Two friends, both heavily tattooed, grab a winch and attach it to Coco's back.
The MC shouts, "This is not your normal-size man! It will not take one, but two, people to pull this big baby up!"
Applause drowns out the house track. Coco's compatriots pull on a rope, lifting him four feet off the ground. The skin on his back stretches like saltwater taffy from the Atlantic City boardwalk. Thin streams of blood trickle from the puncture points. Coco bobs his head to the music while the MC's assistant, a pretty young woman in a pink tutu, spins him with a cane.
The performance, part of a TattooLaPalooza expo, offers a rare local glimpse into a culture that's booming in the underground around the country but remains a fringe in Miami-Dade. Suspension — hanging in the air by steel hooks implanted in flesh — is just one part of a scene that goes way beyond ink-jobs and nose rings. Adherents stretch earlobes into giant doughnut holes, pierce their backs to create skin corsets, brand their flesh, and carve out decorative scars.
Miami-Dade has long been a hotbed of tattooing culture, with its 122 parlors nearly equal to the number in Broward and West Palm combined (where 144 are registered). The hit reality show Miami Ink filmed for six years at Love Hate Tattoos in the heart of South Beach, and thousands of dollars are spent on tattoos and piercings every weekend.
But extreme body modifiers such as Coco remain part of a true underground in the Magic City. While Broward's scene has flourished by comparison — with regular suspension parties in Fort Lauderdale at clubs like the Green Room — Dade's population of kids born to conservative Latin American families often struggles for acceptance. And throughout the Sunshine State, the scene is hindered by laws against some of the bolder procedures — including subdermal implants, like Coco's brass knuckles.
"I hate it," Coco's mom, Rocio Alvear, says of her 32-year-old son's lifestyle. "His father and I have always been clean-cut and presentable. My son will never be able to get a normal job the way he looks."
Pull back the curtain, though, and Dade is full of true believers willing to risk social stigma and legal action to pursue their passion. Guys like Coco put on shows while suspended from their backs. Others, like a Hialeah native who calls himself "Daze," ink themselves from head to toe. Even more alien are deep thinkers such as Michael Alberta, a Miami Beach artist and piercer who adheres to a philosophy called "transhumanism" that preaches melding bodies with the latest technology.
Why do they pour their energy into altering their bodies in such extreme ways — especially in an image-obsessed town that mostly sees their brand of body fixation as freakish?
The answers are as varied as the tats running up and down Coco Stabs's chest.
Humans have been altering their bodies with tattoos and piercings for eons. Australian Aborigines have scarred their flesh for more than 60,000 years. Hill tribes in northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma started stretching their earlobes centuries ago. Native Americans from the Mandan Tribe in the Dakotas began suspending themselves on spears stuck through their backs in the 1700s. Ötzi the Iceman, whose DNA was traced back to 3300 B.C., and Egypt's King Tutankhamun both decorated their earlobes with jewelry.
Not until the late 20th Century, though, did the trend hit America in a big way. Tattooing enjoyed brief popularity in the '40s, as thousands of soldiers and sailors readied to fight Nazis by inking patriotic designs. But by the '60s, with World War II long passed, tats had become associated with criminals, motorcycle gangs, and carnies.
In the mid-'70s, the first professional piercing shops opened in California, says James Weber, former president of the Association of Professional Piercers (APP). "It grew out of the gay leather underground scene," Weber says. "In the 1980s, piercing hit the bohemian punk rock scene. And in the 1990s, it went mainstream."