Following on from his exploration of phantom limbs, Rafael S. W. looks at the creative potential of prosthetics.

James’ leg is a motorcycle. When he’s stopped at lights, onlookers find it hard to distinguish where his leg ends and his bike begins. His motor idling, a feeling of power rumbling through him. Often he catches them looking – drivers with their heads tilted as if there’s something strange about him that they can’t place, a vanity number plate perhaps. He’s been custom designed. He had a taste for tattoos before he had a leg amputated, which made him a perfect fit for a post-flesh prosthetic. Now when people stare, he smiles. The lights turn green. He rides off into the streets, thighs gleaming.

Jo-Jo is doing her shopping, a snake on her arm. At first shoppers thought it was a stunt, a way to encourage people to eat more apples. She is Eve, clothed. Made friends with the serpent, who coils round and round and even inside her arm. When she picks something off a shelf, a child riding reckless at the front of a trolley gasps. The snake is Granny Smith green and seems to be made of envy, or bone, or titanium. When she gets to the checkout she is told to have a nice day and she says thank you. At a beach somewhere, a women is a mermaid.

You can change every part of what you wear to match your personality, so why not include your limbs as well? That was the thinking of people like Sophie from The Alternative Limb Project, which “provides unique prosthetics to blend in with the body or stand out as a unique piece of art, reflecting the wearer’s imagination, personality and interests” with “real, surreal and unreal” limb options. While prosthetic development has come a long way from wooden toes or hook hands the emphasis is no longer necessarily on being realistic and inconspicuous. At least for some people.

On the screen sits a woman with a lacework leg. The presenter says, “What I like about this shot is that you can see daylight through it.” The audience watches as she is given back some grace, some humanity. “We made her another leg that matched her purse. Just because we could.” Scott Summit, a San-Francisco-based designer from Bespoke Innovations, is giving a TED talk on how the prosthetics industry is rapidly changing.

“We don’t ever try to make something look like it could be human,” he says. And indeed for a lot of his clients, having an alternative limb is about both reclaiming and expressing themselves in an unexpected way.

These innovations caught the public eye on a grand scale when model and singer Viktoria Modesta wore a Swarovski crystal leg at the 2012 London Paralympics closing ceremony. After this, people were shown that all kinds of things are possible. Christina Stevens and her Lego leg is just one example.

When her leg was amputated at seven due to a birth defect, New Zealander Nadya Vessey responded by taking up swimming. By the time her other leg had to be amputated, she was sixteen and already swimming competitively.

A few years ago, she had just finished taking off her legs after a swim at the beach when she was approached by a curious child. Instead of trying to explain the complexities of amputation, she told him simply that she was a mermaid. And then after thinking about it for a while, and consulting special effects and props company Weta Workshop, she decided to make that story true.

According to Weta’s website:

Every aspect of the tail has been custom made to Vessey’s body using a blend of 3D modelling and milling technology, combined with Vi Vac vacforming, and a polycarbonate spine and tail fin. The skin of the tail has been made from a layer of neoprene and a lycra outer-layer digitally printed with a stunning ‘scale’ pattern, that was designed by one of our concept artists.

Beyond all the technical wizardry and aesthetic awesomeness is an undercurrent of empowerment. Prosthetics are becoming increasingly feasible for those who might not have been able to afford them in the past, thanks to 3D scanning and a comparably inexpensive manufacture process.

On a personal side, these creations give people like John, another client of Bespoke Innovations, the chance to hear his fiancée say, jokingly, that she likes his new leg better than his born leg. Or Jo-Jo Cranfield, who is able to say, while showing off the snake coiling up her sleeve, “I’ve never wanted to just fit in. I’ve always wanted to be different.”

But the decision is not just an aesthetic one: there is also a strong psychological basis behind the personalisation of new limbs.

Chad Crittenden, a competitive soccer player who lost his leg to cancer, still wanted to be able to play. The longing he felt for the sport must almost have been as strong as the sensation of having a phantom limb. But where having a phantom limb is a feeling for something that isn’t there, this would be the feeling of having a limb that doesn’t work like it used to. Science had quickly given him a prosthetic made to look like a leg, but Bespoke Innovations gave him a leg made like a shin-guard.

Because his leg now looked like something from a locker room rather than a Terminator movie, he was more comfortable, but also he now had more of a feel for the ball. Both his playing and his self-confidence improved.

So is this then the solution? ‘Pimp My Limbs?’ It seems counter-intuitive, but people are responding to their bodies becoming hyperreal. In being given limbs that challenge typical ideas of beauty they find their body both responsive and personalised. With a combination of inexpensive manufacture, a willingness to be experimental, and a personal touch, innovative prosthetics companies are giving amputees not just the ability to walk again, but the chance to damn well stride.

Rafael S. W. is a recent graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He writes every single day and has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging No. 33 and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.