Airbrushing prosthetic limbs brings splash of color — and empowerment

On a cold fall morning in West Chester, John O’Brien shouldered a heavy gym bag and schlepped to the field at Henderson High School.

O’Brien says it’s the only school in the area where the public is allowed to use the track. His bag is filled with legs.

He has a walking leg, a running blade, and a swimming leg. He even has a running arm, a prosthetic with a uniquely designed elbow that can be fixed into position, “so it doesn’t inadvertently unlock on me when I’m running or working out. The arm will just fall down,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien, who had served in the Marines as a fighter pilot, lost his left arm and most of his left leg when his Harrier AV-8B jet crashed almost 20 years ago in North Carolina.

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After decades of prosthetic limbs, he recently decided he would like his leg to look less like a leg, and more like a motorcycle.

“It came as a result of wearing the cosmetic covering — ‘the fake look,'” said O’Brien. “They would take a piece of foam and shape it to the dimensions of your remaining limb. They would paint a skin covering on it — they can even put hair on it, and make it look as real as you want it to.

“But the truth is, it’s still cosmetic,” he said. “Every time I wore shorts, people knew.”O’Brien had never wanted a tattoo on his skin, but he likes this leg.

“When I wear shorts I get cool compliments from the kids,” beamed O’Brien. “And even the parents: ‘wow, that’s better than tattoo art.'”

The design on those prosthetic limbs — a thin blue electric arc snaking around the eagle of the Marines crest, the same for the arm, but in flaming orange — was created by South Philadelphia airbrush artist Fred Sicoli, whose graffiti-inspired work normally graces motorcycles and skateboards.

Catering to soldiers, hunters … and kids

Sicoli works closely with Prosthetic Innovations, a Philadelphia-based manufacturer of limbs. Prosthetics have become an increasingly large part of his business as he caters mostly to returning soldiers (guns, skulls, flames) and hunters (bears, eagles, mountainscapes).

“Sometimes I get kids, which sucks. You hate to see that,” said Sicoli. “When you see a child, and they have to put that on, it’s very industrial looking. You see the metal and carbon fiber, they look at that and go, ‘Oh, it’s kind of ugly.’

“But when you paint it for them — with their favorite characters, pink for girls — they feel better about themselves,” he says.

It’s not just the kids who feel better.

When John O’Brien served in the Marines, he hated running.

“Running was a requirement. I really didn’t like doing it. But you had to do it,” he says.

After recovering from his injuries, O’Brien put on a lot of weight. His strength declined, along with his health. In 2009, equipped with a running blade, he rediscovered running. Now he loves it.

“When I was 28, I was a fighter pilot, a jet jock, flying a $30 million jet. It was like being Top Gun. I loved it. It was the time of my life,” said O’Brien. “And then all of that was taken away in a heartbeat. In a crash. In a fiery crash.

“Having some identity again with that — looking fast and going fast with something I can relate to — it’s fun,” he says. “It makes me happy.”

With his carbon-fiber blade, O’Brien has run two marathons. But he says he doesn’t plan on any more races that long. He still likes running — he just doesn’t have to prove it anymore.

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