Pierce and Play

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

Oblivious to the scrutiny of a dozen or so onlookers, at 7:07 p.m., Joe Amato plucks the 400th needle of the day from the stainless-steel tray. He swivels on his stool back to his subject, Tim McDanel, who is lying shirtless on his stomach in a fully reclined dentist's chair. In one easy motion, the 21-year-old Amato pinches a fold of skin on McDanel's back with one latex-clad hand and slides the needle through it with the other. His expression hidden behind a surgical mask, Amato deftly fits a titanium ring into the base of the needle and then pulls out the shaft, leaving the ring in its place. McDanel, playing a game on his cell phone, doesn't seem to notice. Amato rotates again, drops the used needle into a sharps container, and selects another from the tray.

Amato has found his rhythm for a routine he will repeat far into the night. He is on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record of body piercings in one sitting. In 2002, a Brit named Charlie Wilson put 600 rings into a subject in 8.5 hours. Amato has reached 400 in only 4.5 hours. He has 2,000 sterile needles ready and hopes to use all of them. The rows of blue rings glint on McDanel's back like a strip of chain mail, with only a single dried rivulet of blood betraying that the metal is embedded in his flesh.

Amato's surgical mask contrasts with his jet-black beard and hair that spills from under his black baseball cap. Even the latex gloves he wears are black. His venue is a plastic tent set up in the ballroom of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. Hardcore band Glasseater thunders on-stage at the other end of the massive hall, and most of the 300 people in the room boast piercings and tattoos.

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.
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.
An Expo 2004 patron displays a tongue extension, which is accomplished by cutting the frenulum, the fleshy vertical band beneath the tongue.
An Expo 2004 patron displays a tongue extension, which is accomplished by cutting the frenulum, the fleshy vertical band beneath the tongue.
Adrenaline Expo patrons watch Gus Diamond thrash in midair suspended by six hooks in his shoulders.
Adrenaline Expo patrons watch Gus Diamond thrash in midair suspended by six hooks in his shoulders.
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.
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.

Eight months ago, Amato planned on making his bid for immortality at his Fort Lauderdale apartment. Then he began to consider holding a small event at the place he works, Tatts Taylor's tattoo shop on South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Eventually, the concept grew into "Adrenaline Expo 2004," a coming-out party for South Florida's nascent body modification scene. For the November 15 event, Amato lined up corporate sponsors, bands, and a host of artists to perform and lecture on virtually all varieties of body modification.

Body modification is a term that has come to include not only tattooing and piercing but also less-accepted practices such as branding, decorative surgical implants, scarification -- carving decorative patterns into the skin with a blade -- and suspension -- hanging oneself from hooks embedded in the flesh. Such methods have spread slowly from their West Coast strongholds and are gaining a foothold in South Florida.

At 7:15, Amato stands and stretches. He pulls down the mask to reveal his gauntly handsome face and smiles ruefully. "I'm about to hit that box of nicotine patches," he says. Guinness rules out all breaks, so Amato, a pack-a-day smoker, can't leave the nonsmoking ballroom. "I'm going to have a big smiley face of those things on my back by the time the night is over." Amato and McDanel have also laid in a supply of sodas, juice, and granola bars.

Amato's girlfriend, Aurora Ansara, a pretty, pale 21-year old with dark hair and a ring through her lip, is busy angling for the perfect shot with her digital camera.

Around them, the expo's other events unfold. On a 12-foot-high, steel-girder frame in another corner of the ballroom, Kendall-based suspension artist Gus Diamond, 38 years old, hoists himself into the air, dangling by six heavy hooks sunk deep into the flesh of his shoulders. As the barrel-chested, graying Diamond pulls the rope hand-over-hand to haul himself higher, onlookers whoop delightedly. Five feet in the air, Diamond begins to flail wildly to the tune of the Butthole Surfers' "Someone in My Room." He climbs up the frame supports and drops himself with a jerk onto his hooks, garnering appreciative applause.

As the music changes to the electronic metal of Ministry, Diamond gathers two female assistants into his arms, putting the weight of three people onto the hooks in his back. His skin is stretched even farther and turns white as blood begins to flow in earnest. "I believe in 'hit 'em and hit 'em hard,'" Diamond says later.

Amato knows the world of body modification from personal experience. The lobes of his ears boast 3/4-inch plugs (standard ear piercings are 3/100 inches in diameter), while six other piercings weave in and out of his upper-ear cartilage. He has a barbell that runs horizontally through the head of his penis, a piercing known as an "ampallang." He has five, 1/5-inch-wide, 2 1/2-inch-long bars and six 5/8-inch-diameter balls, all of stainless steel, implanted under the skin of his stomach and abdomen. Hidden behind his grin is the mark of the true believer: a forked tongue, split down the middle with a scalpel.

Amato is ambitious, articulate, and whip-smart. He is as conscientious as he is talented: "I've had customers call me at 1 in the morning and say, 'I have a problem -- come help me,'" Amato says. "And I go." He is well aware of the dim view many take of his art. "The line is usually, 'I'm happy with the holes that God gave me,'" he says, his voice gruff in imitation of a disapproving citizen.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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.


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.

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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