You Can Bejewel Your Prosthetic

Model Viktoria Modesta wore this spectacularly sparkly prosthetic to the 2012 MTV European Music Awards in Germany. Photo by Dave Hogan/MTV 2012/Getty Images for MTV

Wearing prosthetic legs resembling brown leather boots, Paralympian Aimee Mullins walked the runway for Alexander McQueen as part of his No. 13 spring/summer 1999 collection. You never would have known she was wearing two artificial legs just by looking.

Cosmesis is the cosmetic element in designing prosthetic body parts. That includes fingerprints, freckles, hair, veins and any other desired distinguishing physical characteristics. It's not all about mimicking a realistic look, though.

While some amputees may want to recreate a lost limb's original appearance, some, such as Aimee Mullins, may not. And some, such as Viktoria Modesta, may choose to wear a prosthetic leg designed as a black lacquer spike.

Modesta famously wore the “Crystal Leg” to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, a collaboration she undertook with bespoke prosthetics designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata. Modesta and de Oliveira Barata would also design “Stereo Leg,” an art prosthetic with built-in speakers and a stiletto heel.

Also among de Oliveira Barata's stand-out designs is a “Gadget Arm” that includes a bottle opener, compass, flashlight, knife, magnifying glass, matches (stored in a finger, with a strike-pad on the back), telescopic magnet pickup pocket tool, watch and whistle — plus a storage compartment.

De Oliveira Barata, who studied art and special-effects makeup, worked for nearly a decade at a prostheses manufacturing company before embarking on her own venture in 2011. Then she started designing and building custom-made bespoke limbs, and founded The Alternative Limb Project. She works with clients' prosthetists or from scratch in her studio, combining 3-D scans, casting and photography to design new artificial limbs. If her clients can imagine it, she's up for making it happen.

Her prostheses are just one example of the ways amputees are personalizing artificial limbs. A company called UNIYQ, for example, custom manufactures below-the-knee 3-D-printed lower limb fairings (limb coverings). And, yet still another customizing option: prosthetic tattooing.

Collaborating on tattoo design for a client's new prosthesis is a “joy,” says Tim Beck, owner of Freedom Ink Tattoo in Peoria, Illinois, in an email. "It gives them a little individuality with their prosthesis. And I hear they get compliments all the time when walking down the street. Definitely a conversation piece!"

An artificial limb tattooed by artist Tim Beck
Image courtesy of Tim Beck, Freedom ink Tattoo

Beck explains that because titanium and other metals aren't easily painted on, it's the unfinished, matte-textured, beige, “old-fashioned” prosthetic limbs that are best-suited for tattooing. Beck paints the prosthetics with acrylics and seals them with multiple layers of polyurethane for durability and water resistance. “Even as it ages and distresses, it looks even cooler because it adds character, much like a real tattoo that ages and blurs over time. And you can always repaint new tattoos on and start over.”