Cat Spiker first dyed her hair jet-black in sixth-grade. She pierced her nose at age 13. When her parents questioned her motives she asked, "What exactly is going to change about me, other than my appearance?"
Valerie Hogg-Meyer received her first spiked dog-collar on her 16th birthday from her parents. For her, living Goth has become "a dynamic form of being."
More than a label or description, Goth encompasses a lifestyle with roots firmly embedded in history and the present.
Having evolved over the years from past references including punk-rocker, corn-chip, freak, and alternative, the term Gothic describes a small part of a larger subculture - one far from ordinary.
An alternative lifestyle developed out of the punk scene of the late 1970s, the Gothic scene is often adopted early by youth who find themselves disconnected from the mainstream.
Looking from the outside, Goths are seen by many as a group possessing an obsession with the occult, violence, death, self-mutilation and drug abuse. These are stereotypes often found among extreme members in the Gothic community.
Spiker said not all Goths are at that extreme.
"Drug-use, self-mutilation and even alcoholism can permeate any group," she said. "The world is evolving and people are looking for other ways to experience life," the 19 year old said.
In the Quad-Cities, the growing Gothic culture is a diverse group that includes college students, debt collectors, bank tellers, daycare teachers, city workers and massage therapists.
And even though most Goths adorn themselves fully in black dress, piercings and tattoos for expression, others do not.
"Cubicle lifestyle is not conducive to self-expression," said collection agent Josh Bentley.
Bentley, a 28-year-old local musician who has grown up in the Gothic scene since eighth grade, said he still is Gothic, only his way of expressing it has changed.
In the past, he wore many wild hair-styles and rarely left home without his gigantic black combat boots, lavish fur coat and heavy silver jewelry. Today, while he still enjoys wearing black and heavy pieces of jewelry, his appearance is ordinary when in a crowd - until he takes the stage for a live performance.
"These days, older is the way I think," he said. "The way I think defines me as a person and I express myself through verbal displays, with or without labels," he said.
And even though it is repeatedly noted that the majority of youth involved with Goth move on within a few years, many do not.
Bettendorf daycare center teacher Josh Lefebvre is Gothic. But his parents don't approve.
He said his parents believe his lifestyle is only a phase.
"Maybe if they heard what I did in high school, they would understand why I choose to live this lifestyle," 20-year-old Lefebvre said.
Soft whispers referring to him as "somewhat off-centered" or looking like he "might kill someone," during his high school years are still with him today.
"I enjoy this lifestyle because I can be myself. This is who I am. The Gothic scene for me has become a self-discovering and life-altering experience," he said.
"Other than the one parent who freaked out because I forgot to remove my black finger-nail polish, things are fine because they know I'm a good person," he said.
Now he removes his polish.
Greg "Ash" Miller, a 24-year-old bank teller at IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union, considers himself Goth. He once wore a dress to class at Black Hawk College, only to see the reactions of his peers.
"No one even cared, because it's college," he said.
In high school the reaction was different.
"In high school I had my head bashed in between stall doors all the time by jocks. I wasn't the violent one, it's an excuse," he said.
At home, he recalled his mother asking, "Why so much black?"
"I told her with our family's complexion, black is really the only color we look good in, besides burgundy," he said. "And after I modeled for her, she agreed and let it go," he said.
He put his mom's mind at ease.
With constant harassment and ridicule by others, people in any group can be pushed to a breaking point. Mark Hall, who calls himself "Gothman," said some refuse to try to understand the Gothic culture.
"The Gothic culture is a peaceful group whose goal is to help others realize they have nothing to fear from us," he said. "We just have our own personal styles. We hold normal jobs, pay taxes and go to school. Some of us just adorn ourselves in black, tattoos and piercings," he said.
Hall said the aftermath of the "trench coat Mafia" incident at Columbine High School in Colorado, has resulted in people associating criminal activity with Goth. And as one of the newest event organizers of the Quad-City Gothic scene, he hopes to dismiss that opinion.
For the past year, Hall has organized an event titled Elysium at Lumpy's Bar in Davenport, that caters specifically to the Gothic/industrial crowd in the Quad-Cities and it's neighboring area.
The event, which began in September of 2001, is associated with similar Gothic/industrial shows including the Purgatory Sideshow in Iowa City and the Aphelion Show in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
At these shows, all types, whether Gothic or not, are invited to dance and socialize in a freedom-to-express atmosphere, of which there is rarely conflict or violence.
And it is not only Goths present at each show.
"The Gothic culture welcomes everyone freely," said 25-year-old Hogg-Meyer. "I won't wear tie-dye T-shirts and I don't like rap, but I'm not going to poke fun at the people across the room, because that is who they are," the massage therapist said.
"Most people who visit a Goth show know to leave their baggage at the door," Spiker said. "Even my 60-year-old grandma is fascinated by Goth," she said.
Along with the multiple show venues catering to Goths in the surrounding area are multiple Web sites for members of the Gothic community to share information.
Goth Iowa and Aphelion Web sites have seen a significant increase in traffic over the last year.
"Until I found others like me, I did feel like the outsider," Lefebvre said. "Now having discovered the many friends who share my interests, I don't have to conform," he said.
Goth Iowa, the Quad-City Gothic message board, established in May 2001, began with only a few members. Today, more than 150 members use the Web site to display pictures, links, polls and event listings. Local Gothic followers can network with others in Clinton, Galesburg and other nearby cities.
Hall believes this is an advantage.
"These few outlets are all we have," he said. "We all need to converse, feel comfortable and be able to walk down the street without the fear of persecution."
With hair down to his lower back, nearly 18 body piercings and a fascination for all things mysterious and dark, it is not surprising Hall's license plates read "Gothman."
"Grouping us on detail does not describe who we are. The term Gothic is nothing more than a protection term calling out people with a common interest," Bentley said.