Prosthetic hand appearance in relation to cosplay and navigating apparent person [exhibition - CHRIS WILDRICK - THIS IS WHO I AM]

From a recent exhibition by Chris Wildrick [link]: the exhibition "THIS IS WHO I AM" explores the use of appearance modification ("cosplay"). My own contribution is not exactly a cosplay related attempt at modifying the appearance of my prosthetic arm - but then maybe it aims at the core of cosplay, at least in a way.

After a right below elbow amputation because of a tumor in 2008, I was trying to get back into a "social role" as "(reasonably) competent (by visual appearance)" person - which I thought I had been before.

So I was not after any exaggerated simplified visual embodiment of competency such as "super hero", "bionic man" or "spider man" - and not after an evil role as "Captain Hook" or some mass murderer with a hook slaying people.

What always struck me was this simple baseline experience in everyday life of just how "competent" I looked, as arm amputee: the cash register clerk that offers to pack my groceries without being asked. As such a path to make people see me as "competent" ("despite" or just "with" this visible handicap) was so far non-existent, as a specific target or goal, so logically, I had to find my own.

Figure: red 3D-printed oversized "gesture" hand, following a design of Becky Pilditch

At first I thought I require to wear a standard prosthetic arm - skin-colored hand or so - at all times in order to appear "competent". But that never worked, simply because these hands look disabled - or so I thought.

Then I found that wearing the prosthesis made only me feel different and that reactions of others were reactions to my persona, my face and my posture maybe, and really not reactions to the appearance of my arm, with or without prosthesis on. 

I went at great lengths to try out various shapes and colors / textures for my prosthesis (see figures and [link: Red Hand Design series]: I definitely conducted serious investigations into this, and web-published my own works with regard to that.

That was also when Dan Horkey of Prosthetic INK called me on the telephone over airbrushing and coloring sockets with symbolic content, based on my then-recent experience when giving my wooden cuckoo clock a chromed appearance [link]. Apparently it took him a while to get the technique right, and I put a number of people onto the path of getting their own prosthesis customized.

Along that path, I also found that a prosthetic hand is always only a second-rate gripper when any technical device (hook, prehensor, etc) works so much better.

I found that hand covers - all prosthetic hands have gloves - tear up, get dirty, and cost a lot when a steel or cheaply covered hook (you can use silicone tube off a roll, costs a few cents, change it after a week) is a lot cheaper with better grip.

Figure: yellow metal toy-style hand that I had 3D-designed and 3D-printed in metal

When I first found that wearing a red prosthetic hand (rather than skin-colored) would cause a collective calm, a collective retreat of the starers at the time (before around 2011: many people in Zurich then were not permanently engulfed by their mobile device contents; after around 2014: they definitely were).

I wore a red hand that first I had spray painted myself, first a shop mannequin, then a cover for an Otto Bock hand, then a spray painted Becker Lock Grip (wooden body - perfect for that) and doing that for the first time caused me sweat and utter distress.

Another amputee wrote to me that this would require incredible balls at first and I am afraid he was right. Only, the cafeteria, mensa, supermarket head turners all were gone at once. An apparent calm that was totally unprecedented. It must have been in August 2009 when I met with Bertolt Meyer, who then for the first time ever saw a Red Becker hand - a design that I had first created around February 19, 2009 [link]. Why red [link]. By far the sleekest and most elegant of my prototypes was the acrylic red spray-painted Becker Lock Grip hand [link]. After a week you become so hooked that you think all your prostheses need to be that red.

Wrong, of course - but the emotional feel of that attitude was the take away for a differently colored future.

Then you try the exact same attitude, you try "wearing" the same emotional costume so to say, when wearing a standard-issue skin-colored hand, an attitude-cosplay of sorts where the external costume actually is the absence thereof - where the visually apparent lack of visually attributable labels highly targeted and intentional. And then you try that with a standard split-hook, and again, you try that even without wearing the prosthesis, and then later people say "I did not even notice you missed a hand until after a while".

Figure: red cosmetic PVC cover for Becker hand

It took me years to find out that when I embodied that same feel of being "well equipped", of "being allowed to feel proud and sufficiently intact" without wearing the prosthetic arm, others regarded me just as "competent" as I had experienced with extreme visual variations - such as the "Red Hand".

Since that discovery, my use of the prosthesis in order to specifically "appear competent" became practically negligible. Other people that, I remember back in 2009, picked up my idea in order to pursue the subject themselves, tried to employ "bionic" prosthetic hands to convey some sense of competency, they still kept at it all these years - with what appears to be a rather questionable success [link]. After all, wearing dysfunctional prostheses definitely is cos, and it is play - as it is the inverse in meaning and word sequence of workwear. Before you start getting irritated: I love wearing all kinds of non-functional or dysfunctional devices, particularly as long as that serves a higher goal such as investigating their impact on others and their impact on oneself. I am all for research and investigation. Just don't waste too much time and money after you find something is not working as hoped.

This was when I started to feel a lot more free to wear what is really technically functional and also, I felt a lot more free to not wear what is not functional.

Ultimately, it's still very important to wear the prosthesis for hard work for asymmetry reasons - but the interesting part was the part of how I feel about the social enabling aspect.

Figure: white transparent cosmetic PVC cover for Becker hand

And that is how the exhibition was set up with regard to this submission:


Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Prosthetic hand appearance in relation to cosplay and navigating apparent person [exhibition - CHRIS WILDRICK - THIS IS WHO I AM]; published November 18, 2019, 19:36; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1579768672, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Prosthetic hand appearance in relation to cosplay and navigating apparent person [exhibition - CHRIS WILDRICK - THIS IS WHO I AM]}}, month = {November},year = {2019}, url = {}}