Pierce and Play

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

It is just past noon on the day of the record attempt, and Amato is already two hours behind. He had wanted to start at 10 a.m., but as he and McDanel stand in the cavernous ballroom, workers are just beginning to assemble the tent that will house his piercing chair and equipment.

McDanel tries to lift the mood: "I think after the first 30 or 40, it's all the same thing." Amato's laugh is forced; already, the goal of 2,000 piercings is in jeopardy. "I can't fail," he says. "I won't let myself." Eventually, the tent takes shape, and Amato, Rage, and McDanel feverishly begin setting up tables. Amato dons his surgical mask and gloves, picks up the first needle, and, at 2:39 p.m., inserts it into McDanel's back.

Joe Amato laced his girlfriend's back like a corset.
Colby Katz
Joe Amato laced his girlfriend's back like a corset.
For Tim McDanel, boredom was the chief drawback to the nearly ten-hour piercing marathon.
For Tim McDanel, boredom was the chief drawback to the nearly ten-hour piercing marathon.

As afternoon turns to evening, knots of attendees begin to arrive. Most are professional piercers or tattoo artists, and those who gather at Amato's tent study his technique. Fay Hammond, a 41-year-old piercer from Idaho with spiky, bleached hair and a beaded ring pierced into her forehead, watches enviously. "He's getting years of practice in one night," she says.

At 8 p.m., the band turns the spotlight over to Enigma, the poster child of body modification. The Austin, Texas, man's body is covered in blue puzzle-piece tattoos, and forehead implants give him horns nearly an inch long. His shtick consists of tricks such as jamming a power drill with a six-inch bit up his nose. The response is tepid.

Later, Gus Diamond's manic thrashing on his hooks gets a more enthusiastic reaction. Then the tribal police arrive at 10 p.m. "We're just here to watch," a sergeant assures the crowd, but the sight of the group suspension that follows Diamond's show throws them into confusion. Hotel management is summoned, and after a long debate punctuated by long, nervous looks at the bleeding men gleefully swinging on their hooks, they call a halt to the suspension just after 11.

The decision ruins Valentin's plan to blood-paint from midair. Instead, he spreads a three-by-six-foot piece of canvas in front of the stage, which is now occupied by a band called the Genitorturers, strutting in bondage-inspired costumes as they produce surprisingly mundane guitar rock. The crowd gathers around Valentin as he jabs a needle "straight into the vein, so it comes from the heart," he explains. The jet of blood quickly fills a crystal goblet. Valentin works frenetically, and before the police can decide whether to stop him, his work is done. It's part of a series aptly titled "The Prisoner."

Amid the action, almost unnoticed, Amato earns his place in the record books at exactly 8:36 p.m. Rage has been preparing the needles and jewelry in trays of 50, and when Amato completes the tray that makes 600, he calmly moves on to the next. The only break in the routine comes on piercing number 606, when the needle makes an audible pop as Amato pushes it through.

McDanel winces: "That one kind of hurt a little bit."

Amato inspects the needle before he discards it, but it seems fine, smooth and sharp. The two agree that Amato must have hit a lump of scar tissue from an earlier piercing.

The late start, however, has dealt their plans to go for 2,000 a crippling blow. "How much time do we have?" Amato asks McDanel as he slides in another needle. "Until 1, I think," McDanel says. Amato frowns. "If we're still piercing at 1, they're going to have to physically drag me out of here before I'll stop," he vows. But some quick calculations reveal that they won't hit 2,000 until 10 the next morning. In fact, 1,000 piercings may now be out of reach.

As the night wears on, Amato's forearms start cramping from the strain of gripping the needles. McDanel has grown stiff from lying on his stomach. He turns to sit up in the chair just before 10 p.m. and leans on the two strips of rings pierced into his back without a reaction. When Amato starts working on McDanel's forearm, however, the area is more sensitive; each new jab brings a slight tic to McDanel's face. Now it is a test of endurance for both of them.

The lights in the ballroom come on just after midnight, signaling an early end to the event. Amato simply lowers his head and keeps working. Thirty left to go. Then 20. Then ten. Most of the crowd has already left, but about 20 people, many of them Amato's friends or clients, linger to catch the finale. Workmen have begun taking apart the suspension frame and moving the sound equipment.

Finally, at 12:27 a.m., Amato places the 1,000th titanium ring as the spectators burst into applause. Amato stands, takes a long drink from a water bottle, and strips off his latex gloves. Ansara wraps her arms around him while McDanel poses for pictures.

Amato looks drained, but a perma-grin is plastered on his face. His quest didn't end quite as planned, but in the mostly empty hotel ballroom echoing with the clang of workmen's tools, he has become, by one measure at least, the best in the world at something, an achievement to repudiate all those who told him he would always be the worst.

"Unbelievable," Al says of his son's record. "But that's him -- whatever he does, he does to the extreme."

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