Pierce and Play

Joe Amato sets a record -- and sets the past right

So why is someone like Amato pouring his energy into what some see as the desecration of the human body? Why is he pushing to have his name in the record books in a field better known as a haven for burnouts? The answers lie in his painful past.

Amato was born in 1983 in the northern New Jersey town of Bergenfield. His parents, Al and Ann, have no-nonsense attitudes and thick Jersey accents that inevitably call to mind The Sopranos. Al was a truck driver who would eventually build his own trucking and construction company, while his mother was a store cashier. Joe's younger brother, John, was born in 1985.

Body modification comes in a variety of forms, including tattoos, like those on this Adrenaline Expo 2004 patron.
Body modification comes in a variety of forms, including tattoos, like those on this Adrenaline Expo 2004 patron.
Implants and the horns on entertainer and musician Enigma.
Implants and the horns on entertainer and musician Enigma.

Ann says that Joe showed both mechanical talent and stubborn independence early. At age 2, the boy used a set of toy tools to dismantle part of his infant brother's playpen. "I wanted to kill him," Ann recalls. "A brand-new playpen, and he cut a hole in it to let John out."

Joe's inquisitive mind made him a standout in school. In the third grade, he was fascinated by butterflies. He lobbied his mother to buy him a lepidopterist's kit, and soon, his entire class was tending a crop of cocoons as part of a science project.

With encouragement from Al, Joe proved his toughness in sports and fights with other kids. But when there was a stabbing at his school in 1992, his parents decided to move to Forked River, a coastal town of 5,000, to escape the violence. The irony would become apparent.

For Joe, Forked River, 50 miles north of Atlantic City, embodied the worst New Jersey stereotype: big hair on the girls, gold chains on the guys, and God help any minorities or fags. "There were monster trucks in the high-school parking lot," Joe says. "I mean, 44-inch Super-Swamper tires -- you and I could walk under their trucks without touching."

Nine-year-old Joe joined a new football team. At one of the first practices, a teammate snatched away a Pixie Stick he was savoring. The disagreement turned physical. "I head-butted the kid unconscious through his football gear," Joe says matter-of-factly. "I didn't start anything -- the kid just deliberately picked a fight." Unfortunately for Joe, "the kid" was one of the most popular in town. Joe was frozen out of the in-crowd before he had even started school. Ann's voice is laden with regret when she contemplates how the fight would haunt her son. "That incident changed Joe's whole life," she says. "He said, 'Well, if they think I'm a loser, I'm going to be a loser. '"

Joe went from star of the class to social outcast. His grades plummeted as he faced derision at school. He dropped out of athletics and began hanging out with older kids, smoking dope and cutting class. Meanwhile, his brother, John, quickly made friends, especially when he showed a similar talent for football. Joe would leave whenever a group of John's friends would come over. "I could see the desire in Joe's face, and it would break my heart," Ann remembers, "because Joe could have been like that."

Instead, Joe was in constant trouble, getting into fights defending his "loser friends." At age 11, he was sentenced to probation for gashing an opponent's face with a wallet chain. Joe's grades and reputation as a troublemaker got so bad that in seventh grade, teachers tried to relegate him to special education classes. Problem was, he aced all the assessment tests, so in a final bid to get rid of the bad apple, the school had him take the SAT. The state average score among high school juniors and seniors that year was 998; Amato scored 1150.

"It got to the point where if Joe lifted a hand to defend himself, he was suspended," his mother says. His tormentors called in weekly anonymous drug tips and watched as Joe was pulled out of class and searched.

"One kid spat on him every day when he walked out of the gym," Ann says. When she found out, she marched over to talk to the boy's parents. "The woman answered the door and said that it couldn't possibly be her son because he played football," Ann recalls angrily. "What kind of an answer is that? What the fuck does football have to do with spitting on my son?"

Joe became withdrawn. He had frequent anxiety attacks -- and in extreme moments, he would cut or burn himself, something he is reluctant to talk about. "It's kind of like feeling trapped," he explains, "and the only thing you have control over is your body." Two years of therapy starting in 1999 seemed to help, but Joe says what really brought him out of his downward spiral was piercing. He gave himself his first piercing in 1998 at age 15 and was soon practicing on his friends.

Joe's home piercing, known as "scratching," began to eat into the business of New Jersey piercing parlor owner Chris Lovenburg, who goes by the name Chris Rage. Rage had been involved in the trade since 1993, and his handmade jewelry was sold in shops all over the country. He began to see Amato's work on his clients and, recognizing that this scratcher had some talent, decided to break with industry tradition: "I didn't beat the shit out of him," Rage says. Instead, he began teaching Joe his techniques.

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