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."
Thanks to grunge and pop-punk, conventional piercings in bellybuttons, noses, and eyebrows became an American norm. It's tough to quantify just how much the industry has grown since then. One study, conducted in 2004 by the University of Chicago, surveyed 500 men and women between 18 and 50 years old and found 24 percent had a tattoo and 14 percent had a piercing other than an earring.
The financial side of the industry is also opaque, says Elayne Angel, the APP's current president. The anecdotal evidence about the amount of money Americans spend on altering their bodies — such as the 1,500 professional piercers who subscribe to the group's mailing list and the 800 attendees at the most recent APP conference — suggests a booming market.
But as the practice has gone more and more mainstream, people originally drawn to tats and piercings as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd have had to look further and further to the fringes, says Jerry Koch, a Texas Tech professor who led a survey of 1,753 college students about piercings and tattoos.
His study revealed that people with four or more tats or seven or more piercings were substantially more likely to have a history of arrests — suggesting a link between hard-core adherents and troubled lifestyles.
"With the increasing mainstream presence of tattoos and piercings among entertainers, athletes, and even in corporate boardrooms, we found that students who identified with the body modification subculture found it necessary to get more tattoos and piercings as well as engage in more deviant behavior to increase their social distance from mainstream society," Koch says. "To distinguish themselves, they feel that they need to get more body art."
States such as Florida do little to bring such people into the mainstream. Unlike California and Oregon — which allow certified piercers to perform edgy procedures — the Florida Board of Medicine considers branding, tongue splitting, subdermal implants, and scarification forms of medicine, and therefore legal only for licensed physicians to perform.
Joe Amato, one of a few nationally recognized body piercers based in South Florida, says the laws hinder artists from expressing themselves. Body piercers risk losing their licenses if they advertise or openly promote such procedures.
"It is definitely still an underground form of art because of the law," he says. "There is no way to legally practice extreme body modifications in Florida."
Coco Stabs walked into the Tattoos by Moses parlor in Carol City one sunny afternoon in 2000, not long after the latest tragedy to rock his life. The then-20-year-old was numb with depression. Six months earlier, Coco's best friend Alex had died in a motorcycle accident. "A guy cut him off, he lost control of his bike, and crashed into a wall," Coco remembers. "It was fucked up."
Coco had known Alex since middle school. Both boys grew up in the same Miami Lakes apartment complex, then called Fairway Ponds. Every day they would walk together to the bus stop. When they attended high school together, Coco and Alex could always count on each other even though they took different paths. Alex was a clean-cut bookworm. Coco was a truant who smoked weed and befriended gang bangers. "I got my nickname in late middle school. One of my friends called me 'Coco the Smoke-Out Monkey,'" he says. The first part stuck.
Though he had always wanted a tattoo, Coco feared his mom's wrath. When he was 17, he got his nose pierced with his younger sister, but his mom made him take it out. "Either he took it out or I was going to rip it out," she says.
The moment he walked into Tattoos by Moses, though, he spotted a flash card with a large grim reaper. "Alex was on my mind," Coco says. "I kept thinking how the grim reaper comes for all of us one day."
By the time he walked out of there that day with that image on his shoulder, he'd embarked on a path to his new lifestyle. Like a lot of other guys who cover their bodies with art and hang from ceilings, Coco had found emotional comfort in the pain of an artist's needle.
"By the end of the week, I had five tattoos," he says. "The needle on my skin was like therapy."
Born in Queens in 1980, Coco moved to Miami Lakes when he was 6 years old with his mother, a soft-spoken but stern Ecuadorian; his sister, Yamile, who is two years younger; and his father. When Coco was 8, his dad was murdered. The case remains unsolved. (Miami police were unable to find records related to the homicide.)
Until then, he'd had a normal childhood. His dad had coached him in football, baseball, and soccer. "Once his dad passed away, he became introverted," his mother says of Coco. "He also didn't like going to school."
He attended Miami Lakes Elementary, Miami Lakes Middle, and American Senior High. But he dropped out at the end of the 11th grade and soon began getting into trouble on the streets. In 1999, he was arrested for obstructing a police officer. A year later, he was collared for pot possession, and in 2001 for underage drinking.
His mom, now a 57-year-old office manager with dark-auburn hair and square-rimmed eyeglasses, did her best to keep him on a straight path, but the pair clashed constantly about his increasing collection of tattoos and piercings. "In my day, tattoos and piercings were for pirates or prostitutes," she says.
So the first chance Coco got, when he turned 21, he moved out and took a job as a manager for a printing company in Opa-locka. After he clocked out at 5 p.m., he would head to Tattoos by Moses, where he had an apprenticing gig.
As a child, Coco liked to draw his favorite cartoon characters, and he thought he could use those talents as a body artist. Quickly, though, he realized his talent had limits. "I wasn't creative enough," he says. "I could stencil something basic, but who wants that?"
He found his true calling when a customer came in to get a navel ring. The regular piercer wasn't in the shop, so Coco stepped up. "Once I squeezed the needle through, it was all I wanted to do," he says.
He became the shop's full-time piercer, later bouncing around other parlors. But Coco soon realized there was more to piercing than popping barbells through bellybuttons. In 2004, he attended a conference featuring Steve Haworth, an artist dubbed the father of body modification. A decade earlier, Haworth had invented subdermal implants by sewing steel under a customer's skin. Coco was fascinated and began experimenting on himself with implants and scarifications.
"I love human anatomy and doing things to manipulate the skin in an artistic way," he says.
Like all extreme body modifiers in Florida, though, Coco had a problem: All of those procedures are illegal here. In Dade, Coco performs implants and scarifications only on himself and close friends. He doesn't advertise. "I'd lose my license otherwise," he says.
So how could he push the limits without running afoul of the law? Coco found the answer in 2009, at a show put on by Amato at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. It was his first real experience with suspension, and he remembers watching in awe as performers hung in the air by their skin while drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
"I always want to push the limit," Coco says. "Suspension is just another way to do that. I always thought I was too heavy, but then one of my friends convinced me to do it from a tree in [his] back yard."
His first time, Coco was lifted six feet high. "At first, your mind doesn't want your feet to leave the ground. You keep trying to touch it with your toes as you go up," he says.
With his sizable frame, Coco has found a niche among suspension crowds. The longest he's stayed up is 25 minutes during a tattoo expo last year.
The psychological pain Coco felt from losing his dad and later his best friend has faded, in large part thanks to the comfort he's found in piercing. Still, in Miami, that's not always an easy life to lead. When he first got hooked, Coco worried he'd never find a job or a circle of friends. More recently, piercer buddies have invited him to relocate to Los Angeles and St. Louis, places where body modification scenes are better developed and laws are less restrictive.
But Coco says he has no plans to leave. "As far as my career goes, yeah, I feel out of place," he says. "But as far as being myself, I am comfortable wherever I am at."
Michael Alberta leans over a rail-thin girl as she stares at a computer inside Empire Ink Tattoo on Washington Avenue in South Beach. A prompt asks her to choose from a series of words: stillness or restlessness, aware or ignorant, diplomacy or dictatorship.
"Which ones am I supposed to pick?" she asks. Alberta, a handsome 29-year-old whose bald head is half-covered with portraits of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, tells her to choose the words that best describe her at the moment. "It's whatever word you identify with," he says.
The questions are part of a program Alberta has developed in his quest to spread the gospel of transhumanism, a philosophy that teaches that people can be transformed into superbeings through science and technology. Even among body modifiers, Alberta's ideas are pretty out-there; by combining philosophy, new-age ideals, and sci-fi, he's pushing boundaries that even guys with spikes implanted into their foreheads aren't always kosher with.
But the way Alberta sees it, why should piercers stop with rings and studs when they could implant computer chips and magnets?
"The body art culture is innately tuned to transhumanism because we are already modifying our bodies," he argues. "You have people out there who are pushing the envelope by embedding magnets underneath their fingers or implanting cybernetic chips in their heads to pick up electromagnetic fields."
For Alberta, transhumanism is more than an idea to chat about with his piercing customers — it has given him a purpose in life. "My past is pretty fucked-up," he admits. "To a certain extent, so is my present."
According to his mother, Mindy Diamond, Alberta's life unraveled when he was 4 years old. At the time, she'd left his father, also named Michael, because he was abusing her. Court records confirm she obtained a restraining order, but the full file has been destroyed, so the specifics of the case aren't available. Diamond wouldn't talk about what exactly happened, but the violence was bad enough that she sought refuge for herself and her two sons in a Miami Beach synagogue.
"It was our sanctuary for a couple of years," she says. "It was the only way to protect me and my boys."
The damage to Alberta's psyche was obvious. When he was 12, he started cutting classes, smoking pot, and picking fights.
She sent him to psychologists and rehab centers, spending upward of $2,500 a month. Nothing worked. "All he learned was how to roll his joints tighter," Diamond says. "All the money I saved for his college education was gone by the time he was 17."
Alberta dropped out of Miami Beach Senior High for good in the 11th grade. Despite all the problems, though, Diamond says he was always a phenomenal artist. "When Michael was 9 years old, I sent his drawings to the president of Marvel comics," she says. "He was that good. "
When he turned 18, Alberta left Miami to live with his father in New Jersey. There, he says, things only got worse. He started doing cocaine and dealing drugs. He also began getting tattooed. First it was a portrait of his mom over his heart. That was followed by a stick of dynamite and a timer on his right hand. Then came the Miami skyline on his neck. He returned to South Beach in his mid-20s, bouncing from one tattoo parlor to another.
Five years ago, his life slowly started to change when he first read about transhumanism. For guys who live to mess with their bodies, it's a natural fit. Some trace the philosophy to an Iranian-American author, born Fereidoun Esfandiary but who later changed his name to FM-2030 because he hoped technology would take him to his 100th birthday that year. (It didn't; he died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 69 and was cryogenically frozen.)
Alberta was hooked. He began reading about people who had put the concepts to work, such as Australian performance artist Stelarc, who has used electronic stimulators connected to the Internet to control his body via remote control, attached robot hands to his nervous system, and built computer avatars linked directly to his brain waves.
Even as Alberta was getting deeper into his new philosophy, he was still selling and doing drugs — at least until he got busted.
This past March 11, Alberta was riding shotgun in a black Jaguar driven by his brother Nicolas. A Miami Beach police officer pulled them over on 17th Street at Collins Avenue. According to the arrest report, Alberta was trying to hide a small metal box in the back seat.
When the cop told him not to move, Alberta opened the door and tried to fling the box to the ground. The officer grabbed Alberta as he was trying to get out of the car. After patting him down, the cop found five small bags of coke and ten baggies of pot. He was charged with ten counts of possession of marijuana with intent to sell, five counts of cocaine possession with intent to sell, tampering with evidence, and resisting arrest without violence.
A month later, a judge withheld adjudication on the charges, handing Alberta probation. The piercer took it as a sign. "I've got too much at stake to lose it over bullshit," he says, adding he's done with drugs.
Now he's focused on spreading his new gospel. He has developed a line of body jewelry that he believes increases a person's energy. Like Coco, though, he's hamstrung by Florida's tight laws over body modification — the pieces he creates are meant to be implanted under the skin. And he'd love to further his transhumanist plans by pushing the limits à la Stelarc, by implanting magnets or computer chips inside his customers' bodies.
Alberta says he's focused on educating other piercers, which he does in part by hawking three books he's written on the subject. "Everybody in this culture wants to keep modifying themselves," he says. "But we all need to know what the consequences are for continuing to do so."
About a dozen people gather inside a Fort Lauderdale warehouse with gray cinder-block walls and a high ceiling. A rockabilly quartet dressed in white shirts and skinny black ties plays in one corner. Industrial-size stainless-steel chains are fastened to one of the rafters, holding a pulley with bungee cords connected to hooks embedded in the flesh of a 29-year-old barber from Hialeah named Daze.
Daze is lifted about 15 feet off the ground, and a couple of friends push him into a wide swinging arc. He brings his knees to his chest and then, as he swings low, grabs a skinny girl, who latches around his neck. He arcs a few more times with his gal pal hanging on.
"I was a little nervous at first," Daze says of the performance. "But... you forget about the pain and you are just in awe of what you are doing."
Whenever Daze enters a room — even one like this, packed with other body modifiers in town for a documentary filmed by St. Louis body artist Stu Modifies — heads turn. He wears combat boots, psychedelically colored knee-high socks, baggy black shorts with pink suspenders, and no shirt. Even more striking, his entire body is a canvas for a macabre fairy-tale land seemingly plucked from the dark recesses of heavy-metal musician Rob Zombie's mind.
Doe-eyed female anime characters and cute, furry animals play on a green landscape on his right forearm, while his upper arm is a swirl of razor-sharp teeth. Goblins, skulls, and vaginas inhabit the biomechanical tattoo covering half his back and his left arm. Legions of naked women with vacant stares adorn his abdomen and legs. A bar code marks his right temple, and the phrases l'amore y cieco, see no evil, and kiss me are etched above his left eyebrow, on his left eyelid, and on his bottom lip.
Like Coco and Alberta, modifying his body has been a journey of self-discovery for Daze. He's indicative of another extreme edge of the movement: tattoo fanatics whose passion spreads from their arms and legs onto every bit of flesh. The result is an ink-drenched appearance that has made Daze a fixture at fetish parties, tattoo conventions, and porn exhibits.
His father, Esteban Rodriguez, the owner of a Hialeah video store that stocks only Spanish-language films, says his son was as normal as a one-dollar bill as a kid. Rodriguez divorced Daze's mom when his son was 4 years old. But he spent almost every weekend with Daze.
"He loved to build and paint remote control and model cars," Rodriguez remembers. "Every weekend, I'd take him to a hobby shop down in West Kendall and buy him one."
His tattooing fetish, his dad suspects, goes back to the ridicule he regularly endured about his weight. "He was a chubby boy," Rodriguez says, "and he got teased a lot for it." By the time he entered high school, Daze was obsessed with working out. Tattooing became just another way to control his appearance. "Even now, he doesn't miss a day at the gym," Rodriguez says.
Daze's physical transformation began when he got his first tattoo, an image of horned faces and skulls on his pelvis, after graduating from Barbara Goleman Senior High in 2002. "I had never gotten a tattoo as a teenager because my dad hated them," he says.
But Daze met a graffiti artist and tattooist named Rey Grillo. "I saw him tatting and I was like, Man, I want this guy to tat me too," he says of Grillo's art. "It gave me a whole different perspective to use my body as a canvas. For me, tattooing is an art. It is in my blood." He remembers hiding his tattoos from his dad for two months by wearing long sleeves and long pants.
Today, Daze works as a barber at the Fade Shop, a salon on Main Street in Miami Lakes. But his passion is far from that quiet suburban main street.
One of his tattoos, in fact, is a kind of statement to the denizens of Dade who glance at him like a circus freak. It's a stylized book with a question mark in the center.
"It means 'Don't judge a book by its cover,'" he explains.
On a rainy afternoon this past June 23, the whir of tattoo machines blends with A Tribe Called Quest's song "Electric Relaxation." Dozens of booths with artists from around the country are packed with people getting new ink at the fourth annual TattooLaPalooza, in full swing at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami.
Near the entrance, Daze sits in a chair as he paints a surreal beach landscape on the back of a waif with a blond bob. At another booth, Alberta lies in a dental chair. His friend Steve Santacruz, the owner of Empire Ink Tattoo on South Beach, is finishing up a replica of the Mona Lisa on Alberta's abdomen.
The convention is one of the few events in Miami where freaks like Daze and Alberta congregate and talk shop with body modifiers from across the nation. But the scene in Florida still has a long way to go, says Mando Islas, a visiting tattoo artist from Los Angeles.
"In L.A., body modification is a lifestyle," he says. "Here, I've noticed the people getting tattoos and piercings do it to draw attention to their toned bodies and muscles. Most of the girls ask for tats near their bikini lines, and the guys ask for work on their biceps or upper bodies."
According to Amato, founder of the Boca Raton-based Skin Mechanics Suspension, body modification in South Florida has become more popular in the past decade, but remains a small niche. His suspension group has been around since 2004 and has 25 regular members. Every month, Amato holds training sessions for the shows he puts on around Broward. They've teamed up with other suspension groups from around the country and gone on tour with hardcore rock band Nassau Chainsaw.
"Suspension has reached a little further into the mainstream," he says. "Our crew do monthly shows where we try to entertain the crowd in a funny and positive way... We don't have a strong following in Miami. In Broward, we can do monthly shows."
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Hoping to spark Dade's scene, Daze and Coco started their own suspension group, the 305 Airborne Division, putting on a couple of exhibitions at Eve nightclub in downtown Miami and for a news segment on local TV station Telemiami.
But Coco's equipment was stolen in April of last year, and it's been nearly 13 months since any of the group members have hung. Coco and Daze have been working to raise the $5,000 to buy new equipment, and in the meantime, Coco says, he's been talking to producers from the MTV series True Life to do a segment about the crew.
There's little sign, meanwhile, that state laws limiting body modification are likely to be relaxed in the near future, says James Weber, the former APP president.
Even with guys like himself, Daze, and Alberta pushing limits in parlors around the 305, Coco doesn't see the extreme edge of body modification becoming the norm here anytime soon. Not that he's too upset about it — what's the fun of being on the fringe if everyone else is out there with you?