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

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"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."

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?

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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.