Pierce and Play

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

Armando Favazza, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri, is the author of Bodies Under Siege, the definitive study of self-mutilation. Favazza says such behavior is far more common than most people realize: Out of every 100,000 people in the United States, 1,500 are self-injurers, commonly labeled "cutters" or "burners." Self-injury is often misclassified as attempted suicide. "In fact, it is the exact opposite of suicidality," Favazza says. "Cutters and burners want to live but want to live free of psychological pain. It's considered a morbid form of self-therapy."

Favazza has written extensively on the spiritual and aesthetic value of body modification -- but he also believes that many serious practitioners suffer from a self-injury disorder. Says Amato: "I would absolutely agree with that. A lot of the people do it from a compulsion."

Amato's love of piercing has only grown stronger over the years, as has his tolerance for pain, but working on himself without anesthesia is still a challenge. He recently enlarged the tunnel through his penis to accommodate a bigger bar. "That was hell on Earth," he says. "Afterwards, I was just laying on the couch whimpering." Amato's chest and left calf have rows of scars on them. "I put in a bunch of surface piercings that I knew weren't going to work," he explains. Instead of contouring the metal, Amato left it flat so that the pieces would eventually work their way to the surface. "I would rather fuck up on myself a thousand times than do it once on a customer," he says. "Besides, I think the scars look rad."

Gus Diamond thrashes in midair suspended by six hooks in his shoulders.
Gus Diamond thrashes in midair suspended by six hooks in his shoulders.
Fay Hammond, a piercer from Idaho who was one of dozens of professionals from all over the country who were present for Amato's record attempt.
Fay Hammond, a piercer from Idaho who was one of dozens of professionals from all over the country who were present for Amato's record attempt.

Amato's first implants, the bars in his abdomen done in October 2003, replaced a surface piercing in the same spot. The piercing had become infected after he was kicked while in the mosh pit at a Killswitch Engage show in 2002. "I wanted it back, but I didn't want to have to deal with healing it again," Amato says, "so I was like, 'Well, let's do an implant. Let's do it where I don't have anything sticking out. '"

Because implants are controversial, Amato won't say who performed his in New Jersey. "By the time we set the first bar, I was already in a mindset that was almost untouchable," he says. A small incision allowed for the insertion of an elevator, a surgical probe like a miniature spatula. The elevator opened up a tunnel in Amato's abdomen where the bar would go. "I couldn't feel any crunching or anything like that," he says. "It was more like just pulling." The five sterile steel bars slid in easily, and the cuts healed within a few days. Amato still loves the result, with one reservation. "I wish I did them bigger, because I got a little doughy, and they kind of disappeared," he says. "They were discreet, but they weren't always that discreet."

In June, he had six metal balls implanted in two vertical rows of three along each side of his stomach. "I wanted actually to take the balls farther, all the way around my back, but then it was like, 'Where are you going to sleep?'" he explains. Amato was again delighted and still is. "I play with them through my shirt all the time," he says. "I'll go up and down the little xylophone I've got going on, or when I get bored, I'll push on my balls. I'm probably the only guy you know that can say, 'I play with my balls in public' and it's not perverted."

Amato's most recent modification is also his most striking: his split tongue. "The more I talked to people that loved theirs, I was like 'I want one now,'" he says. Amato traveled back to New Jersey again in August. This time, his endorphin rush was supplemented by a local anesthetic, and he found the procedure to be anticlimactic. "It was like being forced to listen to a movie and not watch it, you know -- it takes half the fun out of it," he says. "We sat down, marked it out, opened up the mouth, and to work we went." The slicing was done with a cauterizing scalpel, a blade that sears the flesh as it cuts, sealing the capillaries to prevent bleeding. "I was over and done with before I possibly could have finished a cigarette."

Amato's girlfriend, Ansara, was photographing the process. "The only blood he had in his mouth was like watery pink -- it was mostly like saliva," she says. Afterward, Amato's tongue swelled 50 percent beyond its normal size. "He had a hard time distinguishing what was his tongue and what was his food," Ansara says.

A forked tongue, with its connotation of serpents or demons, would seem to be calculated for maximum shock value, but Amato's usually goes unnoticed. "I can stick my tongue out so that it looks totally normal. It just looks like a deep crease," Amato says, and demonstrates. His speech and sense of taste are unimpaired.

In fact, though Amato is heavily modified, most of his work is invisible to a casual observer. His shaggy hair covers the piercings on his upper ear, and even his single tattoo, a half-sleeve on his right arm, is mostly confined to the area a T-shirt covers. "The most common question I get is, 'Those holes in your ears -- are they really that big?'" Amato says.

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