Pierce and Play

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

Shannon Futules boasts a spectacular example of Amato's work. The curvaceous, 22-year-old brunet is adorned with a pair of two-inch, shiny, steel butterfly silhouettes, one on each slope of her cleavage. She has worn the custom-made staples for nearly six months. Futules doesn't like getting pierced -- she nearly passed out when she had her bellybutton done -- but she is ostentatiously proud of the results. "It was like a bad acid trip," she says, "but it was totally worth it." She turns slightly to give a better view of her butterflies. "It's like a natural high."

McDanel, the subject of the world record attempt and a piercer himself in Tampa, has Amato's trademark piercing, the extremely rare eyelid ring. Amato studied the anatomy of the eye for months before he pierced his first eyelid early this year. The after-care program he devised has yielded what may be the first-ever eyelid piercings to heal successfully. McDanel has worn his for four months. "At least once a day, I have to answer the question, 'Did it hurt?'" McDanel says. "Hell yeah, it hurt. It's my eyelid."

Amato makes his custom jewelry with the heavy machine tools crammed into his Fort Lauderdale apartment. The one-bedroom unit he shares with Ansara has sketches and paintings all over the walls, but the dominant feature of the living room is an industrial grinder, its cylindrical bulk housed under a large metal hood.

A patron at Expo 2004 displays a surgically bifurcated tongue. An estimated 2,000 people in North America have had the operation done, according to body-modification website BMEzine.com. The practice's origins trace back to the Far East.
A patron at Expo 2004 displays a surgically bifurcated tongue. An estimated 2,000 people in North America have had the operation done, according to body-modification website BMEzine.com. The practice's origins trace back to the Far East.

Amato invests what money he has in new hardware to pursue his art. He gets about ten piercing customers a week, a paltry number by mall piercing kiosk standards, and between his two jobs makes about $500 per week. "It keeps itself going. You usually make enough money to keep doing it. I'm not sitting pretty, but I'm not starving -- and I'm happy."

At 2 p.m. on November 13, two days before the record attempt, the buzz of tattoo guns fills the air at the Airport Hilton in West Palm Beach. The narrow aisles between the booths at the Gold Coast Tattoo Convention are filled with patrons covered to varying degrees in ink and steel. Amato's portfolio lies open on the folding table in front of him, attracting the interest of a pair of young women with cartilage piercings in their upper ears. The shorter of the two is stunning, with caramel-colored skin, a tight black T-shirt, and blond streaks in her brown hair. She also sports a labret, a piercing though the skin below the lower lip.

"That's one of the primary benefits of this business," Chris Rage says in an appreciative murmur. A stocky 30-year-old with a shaved head, large lobe plugs, and a plethora of Technicolor tattoos, Rage has flown from New Jersey in anticipation of his protégé's milestone attempt.

Though Amato had planned to make some money and drum up interest for his record attempt by working at the convention, he can't pierce until a Palm Beach County health inspector returns to give him the go-ahead. According to county health code, body-piercing facilities must include a sink with hot and cold running water. So while the tattoo artists were plying their needles, Amato was driving to Home Depot to purchase an electric water cooler/heater. "This is typical," Rage gripes. Florida has regulated piercing since 1999, and the state currently lists 401 piercing parlors with permanent licenses, but heavier work is still a relative rarity. "When I first got down here, I met this girl who told me that she's into 'hard-core piercing,'" Amato says. "She was like, 'Yeah, I'm thinking about getting my lip done.' And I swear to God, at that moment, a tumbleweed rolled by."

Like most states, Florida stipulates that the implantation of objects under the skin and tongue-splitting may be performed only by a doctor. But Florida extends the prohibition to scarification, branding, and suspension, areas still unregulated in many other states. Amato is hoping that because his event at the Seminole Hard Rock is on sovereign tribal ground, the suspensions will escape official interference.

Soon after the girls leave the booth, Miguel Valentin, a Miami piercer and tattoo artist, stops by. Valentin's sallow, angular face is framed by long dark hair, and when he talks, he reveals canine teeth elongated with dental porcelain into fangs. His passion is blood painting. At Amato's event, Valentin explains, he plans to demonstrate his art while suspended.

Amato's frustration is infectious, and soon the trio is airing a litany of complaints about the industry. While greater acceptance of piercing by the mainstream brings more clients, commercialization of the art has led to a decline in standards. In many shops, handmade local jewelry has been replaced by shoddy imports, and shops in South Florida often entice tourists with coupons, discounts, or specials.

The $45 Amato charges for a tongue piercing covers several return visits during the healing process and a jewelry change to the appropriate size once swelling has gone down. "But no, they don't want to hear that," Amato says. "They'd rather go get it fucked up for $20 down the street."

While Amato continues to wait for the inspector, Rage and Valentin head outside. At the door, they run into Ansara smoking a cigarette. Rage looks even more disgusted. "Out of all the stuff in the world you could do to your body, that's probably the worst," he says, gesturing at the smoke -- with an arm lined with implants from wrist to elbow that create a ridge like an iguana's spine.

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