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

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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.

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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.