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Miami's Extreme Body Modifiers Brave Social Stigma and Legal Action to Pursue Their Passion

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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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.