Dan Horkey, founder, president and chief executive officer of Prosthetic Ink in Seattle, designs tattooed prostheses for amputees to express themselves and confidently wear something that makes them unique.
“I covered my disability for 20 years; the Social Security lady told me I was not disabled but I looked disabled,” he told O&P News. “I just chose to cover it up with fake skin and 20 years later I decided, this is something that is unique about me. Why should I cover it up?”
New job, new life
Horkey was a carpenter until he lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident in 1985. He took over his father’s business and worked behind a desk, helping customers design and remodel their homes.
Horkey said he desperately needed a new prosthetic limb in 2004, but his insurance would not cover a replacement. He got into the O&P field when his prosthetist at Hanger Clinic in Tacoma, Wash., explained they wanted to train someone to fabricate prosthetic limbs and braces.
“I felt with my background I could build a [prosthesis and] fabricate it,” he said. “So, they offered me this job and offered a free leg if I became an employee, so who would pass that up?”
Horkey was blown away when he fabricated his own prosthetic leg and socket within a week, so he began to make prostheses for other amputees. He fabricated prosthetics for soldiers at Joint-Base Lewis-McChord, a U.S. military base near Tacoma, and found it incredibly rewarding.
“I found a way that I felt I could help other people based on my own experience [of] how my artwork made me feel,” Horkey said.
Walking with pride
Horkey one day looked around his clinic.
“I saw all these baby doll-colored prostheses [and] black carbon fiber and plastic milk jug-colored braces,” he explained. “Nobody was addressing the individual wearing it, the emotional, psychological side of it or allowing people to express themselves with either color, favorite art design or even replace a tattoo they have lost or that is covered by a brace.”
Horkey did research for 3 years to make sure no one else had come up with the idea of tattooing prostheses. His goal was to be an innovator of better looking limbs and he felt he had something unique.
Horkey then decided, “I am going to go bare bones and wear [my prosthesis] proudly and this time I am going to make it my own.”
He went to a fabric store and found fabric with flames on it. Flames were his first tattoo to remind him of the burning pain after his amputation, and he thought flames were cool.
He describes the first moment he put on his new flame-covered prosthesis limb as simply great. “I started walking around in public more openly,” Horkey said. “I would walk down the street, and people did not avoid contact anymore. They saw me walking toward them, they saw the flames.”
Horkey also made a tattooed socket with a dragon because it is his symbol in the Chinese zodiac. His new prosthetic limbs generated many compliments from strangers.
Horkey wanted his tattoo methods to be durable, so he tested different methods until he perfected them. The female customers led him to figure out ways to use color and make them feel more confident.
Horkey tattooes prostheses using solid or metallic colors, specific signs or logos, team logos or something unique for the individual. He also offers chrome finishes.
“A lot of the colors I am using and the airbrush quality of the artwork is what you see on automobiles and hotrods and the tattoo art on choppers and bikes,” he said.
“I have always wanted the chrome look because I was inspired by the Terminator movies,” Horkey said. “My leg is kind of robot-looking and it would look even better chrome.”
After perfecting his tattoos, Horkey opened Prosthetic Ink in 2008.
“I thought, if I feel this good just from a personalization, I can help others feel better [and] restore some courage, self-esteem and pride,” he said. “It makes people feel great instantly and the compliments are what make them feel better in social settings.”
Horkey said tattooed prostheses provide conversation starters, rather than people simply asking about or apologizing for someone’s amputation story.
“Amputees do not want that pity and [to have to] tell their story over and over again,” he said.
Veterans get inked
When Horkey first began fabricating O&P devices for veterans, he felt it was not enough and wanted to do more. He saw many soldiers come back from war, wounded or missing limbs so he made a new goal for himself.
He said to himself, “I am going to find a way for the [VA] Veteran’s Affairs to cover this service or part of it a least part of it, so I can serve these [soldiers] and again restore some of their pride and courage.”
In 2009, the VA approved his services and he was able to serve 13 veterans, including one woman.
“We have only served one female veteran so far, and that is something I donated to the veteran and firefighter,” he said. She chose a pink chrome socket.
In June 2015, The Girl’s Lounge, a networking organization for women, contacted Horkey to get involved with the group and to become part of the VA Innovation of Creation challenge where they gave female veterans their confidence back by making their prostheses “look better.”
He traveled with the group to Washington D.C. for the National Maker Faire and than to Richmond, Va. He noted about 2% of amputee veterans are women.
In 2015, Horkey received a patent for his systems and methods of personalizing prosthetics and orthopedic braces.
Many of Horkey’s clients emailed him pictures of them smiling with their newly painted or tattooed prostheses, thanking him for his amazing work and how much he has changed their lives.
“I have done my job; it is a great feeling,” he said. “I cannot express it any better than that, knowing I just made a little difference in someone’s life is important to me.”
Horkey wants to create personalized prostheses anyone can afford and hopes to expand Prosthetic Ink with additional reimbursable items.
He plans to try to obtain licensing to use major sport team logos and comic book characters, as well as build an online gallery from which clients can choose designs. He wants to create jobs for artist, amputees, disabled and wheelchair-bound patients.
He hopes to help more people. There is a list of people he has not been able to help.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears are put into [my start-up],” he said, “We are taking care of one customer at a time.” – by Monica Jaramillo
Disclosure: Horkey reports he is founder, president and chief executive officer of Prosthetic Ink.