By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
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Joe took to the craft with a passion. He and his small group of friends would share drawings of planned piercings and tattoos. "That was actually the funniest part about New Jersey, is that we would go and sit at IHOP all night long with sketchbooks," Joe says. "We would work out designs and ideas, and when one place closed, we would move on to the next."
His parents were horrified. "My dad wasn't an abusive dad," Joe explains, carefully selecting his words. "He's just a very... to-the-point guy." Whenever Al would spot a piece of jewelry on Joe, he would issue an ultimatum: Hand it over or have it ripped out. "Let's see," laughs Joe, "a list of piercings my father has made me take out: tongue, two times; ears, four times; [ear] cartilage, three times..." Al carefully bent each piece of jewelry beyond repair and tossed it into the lagoon behind the house.
Joe did share his father's strong work ethic. When he was 14, he bought a fake birth certificate -- not to drink but to flip burgers at Burger King. "I was never into that 'Let's just be kids and play' thing," Joe says. "I always wanted to be doing something." The father-son relationship improved when Joe worked on one of Al's construction crews for a summer. "It was a pleasure to have him around," Al says. "He was always a great worker." Al still disapproves of the piercings on Joe and his friends. "I voice my opinion all the time," he says. "They'd look better without them -- but it's not going to get in the way of how I feel about him."
Joe saw his senior year as a light at the end of the tunnel, and by his 2001 graduation, he had turned his grades around. Ann recalls the shock of other parents when they heard Joe had made the dean's list: "They'd say, 'Come on, the freak boy?'" The Art Institute in Philadelphia accepted Joe on the strength of his eighth-grade SAT score, and he escaped from his small-town hell to the freedom of the city.
At first, Joe thrived. He pierced many of his classmates, as well as one pretty Texas native named Aurora Ansara. The two became good friends, but Joe found himself withdrawing again, falling victim to old emotional wounds. At the end of summer session 2003, he decided to get a fresh start and transferred to the Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale, accompanied by Ansara.
Another source of anxiety came in 2001 when Joe's mother, his sole defender for so many years, was diagnosed with cancer. Ann's health is in steady decline, her immune system ravaged by chemotherapy, but she bears the illness with typical Amato stubbornness. Says Joe's brother, John: "I have to yell at her sometimes. You'll see her going out of her way lugging something up the stairs or something, and I'm like, 'Ma, ask me for help. '"
"I'm doing all right," Ann says, her words contradicted by her voice. "I'm hanging in there. I don't let shit get to me. I'm definitely getting worse every day, but I don't think about it." She adds: "It's only when you start treating the cancer that you get sick and want to die."
It's hard to tell if she's talking about herself or Joe when she says, "I'm not saying the world is a bad place, but every time you turn around, somebody's getting screwed."
It is 1 a.m. on November 12, three days before the record attempt. Amato is at work, laboriously removing needles from 100-count tubes, brushing each needle lightly over the back of his hand to check for burrs, and then putting them into sterilization bags. The bags go onto a stainless-steel tray that in turn goes into an autoclave for 50 minutes.
Amato has spent virtually every spare moment for the past week sterilizing 2,000 needles and 2,000 rings. He removes a newly steamed batch from the machine. "Packing freshly autoclaved stuff is like folding fresh laundry," Amato says enthusiastically. "It's still all nice and hot."
Amato's workspace is a small back room at Tatts Taylor's shop equipped with cabinets and a sink. Fluorescent overhead fixtures and white walls offer plenty of light for piercing. Amato's white piercing chair, the one McDanel will sit in for the record attempt, dominates the space, while a red, wheeled mechanic's toolbox in the corner holds piercing implements and jewelry. Amato has worked at the shop since January, initially as a sideline while he studied design at the Art Institute. Over the summer, he took a graphics-design job and dropped out of school.
Amato regularly works 12 hours per day. At the piercing shop, surrounded by his professional accouterments, he seems a long way from those dark days in Forked River, but they still exact a psychological toll. Recently, he rented Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. "That movie disturbed me so bad that I took a cautery pen and burned a circle on my ankle," Amato says. He lifts his pants leg to reveal a half-healed pattern of round burn marks on his right ankle. Amato offers the scars as proof of his emotional progress. "You can see that I did it in an aesthetically pleasing way. I look at it as remembrance."