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

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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.

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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.