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.

Michael Alberta preaches a philosophy called "transhumanism."
Giulio Sciorio
Michael Alberta preaches a philosophy called "transhumanism."
Dazed is a fixture at fetish parties, tattoo conventions, and porn expos.
Giulio Sciorio
Dazed is a fixture at fetish parties, tattoo conventions, and porn expos.

"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, Jose Sr. When Coco was 8, his dad was murdered. The case remains unsolved.

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 underaged 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.

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