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Oblivious to the scrutiny of a dozen or so onlookers, at 7:07 p.m., Joe Amato plucks the 400th needle of the day from the stainless-steel tray. He swivels on his stool back to his subject, Tim McDanel, who is lying shirtless on his stomach in a fully reclined dentist's chair. In one easy motion, the 21-year-old Amato pinches a fold of skin on McDanel's back with one latex-clad hand and slides the needle through it with the other. His expression hidden behind a surgical mask, Amato deftly fits a titanium ring into the base of the needle and then pulls out the shaft, leaving the ring in its place. McDanel, playing a game on his cell phone, doesn't seem to notice. Amato rotates again, drops the used needle into a sharps container, and selects another from the tray.
Amato has found his rhythm for a routine he will repeat far into the night. He is on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record of body piercings in one sitting. In 2002, a Brit named Charlie Wilson put 600 rings into a subject in 8.5 hours. Amato has reached 400 in only 4.5 hours. He has 2,000 sterile needles ready and hopes to use all of them. The rows of blue rings glint on McDanel's back like a strip of chain mail, with only a single dried rivulet of blood betraying that the metal is embedded in his flesh.
Amato's surgical mask contrasts with his jet-black beard and hair that spills from under his black baseball cap. Even the latex gloves he wears are black. His venue is a plastic tent set up in the ballroom of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. Hardcore band Glasseater thunders on-stage at the other end of the massive hall, and most of the 300 people in the room boast piercings and tattoos.
Eight months ago, Amato planned on making his bid for immortality at his Fort Lauderdale apartment. Then he began to consider holding a small event at the place he works, Tatts Taylor's tattoo shop on South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Eventually, the concept grew into "Adrenaline Expo 2004," a coming-out party for South Florida's nascent body modification scene. For the November 15 event, Amato lined up corporate sponsors, bands, and a host of artists to perform and lecture on virtually all varieties of body modification.
Body modification is a term that has come to include not only tattooing and piercing but also less-accepted practices such as branding, decorative surgical implants, scarification -- carving decorative patterns into the skin with a blade -- and suspension -- hanging oneself from hooks embedded in the flesh. Such methods have spread slowly from their West Coast strongholds and are gaining a foothold in South Florida.
At 7:15, Amato stands and stretches. He pulls down the mask to reveal his gauntly handsome face and smiles ruefully. "I'm about to hit that box of nicotine patches," he says. Guinness rules out all breaks, so Amato, a pack-a-day smoker, can't leave the nonsmoking ballroom. "I'm going to have a big smiley face of those things on my back by the time the night is over." Amato and McDanel have also laid in a supply of sodas, juice, and granola bars.
Amato's girlfriend, Aurora Ansara, a pretty, pale 21-year old with dark hair and a ring through her lip, is busy angling for the perfect shot with her digital camera.
Around them, the expo's other events unfold. On a 12-foot-high, steel-girder frame in another corner of the ballroom, Kendall-based suspension artist Gus Diamond, 38 years old, hoists himself into the air, dangling by six heavy hooks sunk deep into the flesh of his shoulders. As the barrel-chested, graying Diamond pulls the rope hand-over-hand to haul himself higher, onlookers whoop delightedly. Five feet in the air, Diamond begins to flail wildly to the tune of the Butthole Surfers' "Someone in My Room." He climbs up the frame supports and drops himself with a jerk onto his hooks, garnering appreciative applause.
As the music changes to the electronic metal of Ministry, Diamond gathers two female assistants into his arms, putting the weight of three people onto the hooks in his back. His skin is stretched even farther and turns white as blood begins to flow in earnest. "I believe in 'hit 'em and hit 'em hard,'" Diamond says later.
Amato knows the world of body modification from personal experience. The lobes of his ears boast 3/4-inch plugs (standard ear piercings are 3/100 inches in diameter), while six other piercings weave in and out of his upper-ear cartilage. He has a barbell that runs horizontally through the head of his penis, a piercing known as an "ampallang." He has five, 1/5-inch-wide, 2 1/2-inch-long bars and six 5/8-inch-diameter balls, all of stainless steel, implanted under the skin of his stomach and abdomen. Hidden behind his grin is the mark of the true believer: a forked tongue, split down the middle with a scalpel.
Amato is ambitious, articulate, and whip-smart. He is as conscientious as he is talented: "I've had customers call me at 1 in the morning and say, 'I have a problem -- come help me,'" Amato says. "And I go." He is well aware of the dim view many take of his art. "The line is usually, 'I'm happy with the holes that God gave me,'" he says, his voice gruff in imitation of a disapproving citizen.