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. "

Coco Stabs.
Giulio Sciorio
Coco Stabs.
Coco Stabs has been pushing the limits of body modification since 2001.
Eric Madrid
Coco Stabs has been pushing the limits of body modification since 2001.

When he turned 18, Alberta left Miami to live with his father in New Jersey. There, he says, things took a turn for the 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 agef 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.

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-sized stainless-steel chains are fastened to one of the rafters, holding a pulley with bungee cords connected to hooks embedded in the flesh of Steven Rodriguez, AKA Dazed.

Dazed 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," Dazed says of the performance. "But... you forget about the pain and you are just in awe of what you are doing."

Whenever Dazed 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.

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