Meet The Prosthetist Creating Custom-Made Insane Limbs

Putting the art in artificial limbs

A Leg Up

A Leg Up

In addition to artistic prostheses, Sophie de Oliveira Barata also makes hyperrealistic limbs like this one.Photograph by Nadav Kander

For eight years, prosthetic sculptor Sophie de Oliveira Barata created realistic-looking limbs for amputees who wanted to blend in. But she longed to work on more whimsical designs that would stand out. Then she met Pollyanna Hope, a young amputee.

“She wanted something a little different on her leg: pictures of a cartoon she loved, Peppa Pig,” said de Oliveira Barata, who is based in London. So she designed a unique leg covered in tattoo-like images of Peppa and other pigs riding a bicycle and eating ice cream. Working with Hope made de Oliveira Barata realize there was a market for limbs with flair.

Since then, de Oliveira Barata founded the Alternative Limb Project to make artistic prostheses. Her work includes an arm wrapped in sculpted snakes and a leg that resembles porcelain covered in a painted floral vine. She makes about six limbs per year, always incorporating clients' ideas so that they receive a personal piece they can celebrate rather than hide.

Latvia-born English model Viktoria Modesta brought attention to the Alternative Limb Project when she donned a glistening Swarovski crystal-encrusted leg at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony. "Modesta wanted to embrace the idea of the prosthetic as a fashion statement, and treat it like an accessory," said de Oliveira Barata, who spent 3.5 weeks crafting the limb that she valued at £5,000 ($7,435 USD). "It was really empowering for her."

Phantom Limb

Phantom Limb

James Young sports one of de Oliveira Barata's most audacious projects: the Phantom Limb, inspired by the video game Metal Gear Solid. Young and de Oliveira Barata worked with 11 artists and engineers to craft an arm that boasts lights, USB charging ports, a 3-D-printed hand, and a drone that docks on the shoulder, among other features. Young says he did lose some functionality for the cool factor, but tinkering with the limb has involved him in maker culture. "I've learned about LEDs and coding," he says. For more information about Young and his limb, check out "How 'Metal Gear Solid' Helped Turn An Amputee Into A Maker."Courtesy of Trunk Archive

Of course, a limb covered in Swarovski crystals or feathers won't suit everyone. Each prosthesis must satisfy a trifecta of comfort, aesthetics, and functionality, and pushing too hard in one direction can compromise other areas. But for amputees who appreciate novelty, de Oliveira Barata has some outrageous ideas.

“I’d really like to make a candy-dispenser leg with a vintage feel and Gobstoppers inside it,” she says. “Or a cuckoo-clock leg with a brass bird that pops out every hour.” Her goal is to craft a limb so striking, it transforms the prosthesis from an elephant in the room into a conversation piece.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title "The Art of Artificial Limbs."