Tattoo artists literally bend over backwards to make us look like scrawl-emblazoned demigods. Their effort takes patience and sacrifice, though, considering the physical strain involved may be wrecking their bodies, one tat at a time.
A new study in applied ergonomics from Ohio State University takes a closer look at some of the health risks tattoo artists are faced with, including the heightened risks of work-related musculoskeletal discomfort. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, musculoskeletal disorders—which range from carpal tunnel syndrome to tendonitis—negatively affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons.
In the Ohio State study, researchers actively observed and monitored the postural and muscle activity of ten inkers at work. They used wireless electrodes to monitor muscle activity during each tattoo session and a Rapid Upper Limb Assessment for postural observations. A questionnaire ascertained the work patterns of the 34 participants, as well as the average time spent tattooing and working on various tasks.
The study reveals that tattoo artists are at increased risk for musculoskeletal discomfort which is literally, a pain in the neck (and shoulders, elbows, hands/wrists, back…everywhere that matters, basically). These symptoms get worse with repetitive work tasks and the unnatural postures necessary to ink someone effectively. In the study, ten of the tattoo artists went over the recommended muscle activity limit for avoiding injury in the upper regions of the body.
Carolyn Sommerich, co-author of the study, and director of the Engineering Laboratory for Human Factors/Ergonomics/Safety at Ohio State University, explains to me that much of the focus is often on the client receiving the tattoo, and not often on the providers, who are part of an overlooked and understudied worker population.
"What is an issue is these really long periods of time that people are working: two to three hours at a stretch on one particular tattoo and that may be repeated over several days," she says.
Other risks Sommerich highlights include exposure to vibration noise, the machine, and the way in which a workstation is set up (how often the tattoo artist hunches over to reach for his/her tools).
"The only thing that separates their hand from [the machine] is their non-latex glove. In addition, their heads [are] very close to the machine…and so you've got some noise exposure to that," Sommerich says.
Pasadena, California-based tattoo artist Tommy Borboa has experienced many of these very symptoms. "As my one thing, health-wise, that does get a little rattled, it would have to be my hands, just from using them all the time especially with tattooing because there's weight to the machine. It's vibrating on your hands, and you could be working for six to eight hours straight," Borboa says.
During his first few months tattooing professionally, Borboa says he'd work on a client for six to seven hours a day to the point where his hand would "feel straight up numb and weird" from all of the vibrations caused by the coil machine. "There [are] hundreds of reps per seconds. Doing that for long hours will definitely put a physical toll on you," he adds.
Borboa now spends 15-20 hours a week actively tattooing, while the other half is spent sketching, brainstorming, and sterilizing equipment. He says he often catches himself in awkward positions just to reach a certain part of someone's body, referencing a recent time when he tattooed a woman's back thigh.
"It was an awkward position so that is killer on your joints, on your lower back, just being in these weird, random positions, often," he says. Though Borboa is a fairly new tattoo artist, he says he is worried about experiencing physical strain on other regions of his body and what the future holds if he continues this line of work for the next 15 to 20 years.
Bay Area-based tattoo artist Andy Chen has been applying roughly eight to ten tattoos a week for the past four and a half years. Churning out large and small-scaled tattoos, his straining postures have landed him appointments to see a chiropractor. Chen also notes that he frequently hunches over clients in awkward postures that may cause strain on his own body.
"Definitely the first thing that happens is your back starts hurting a lot. I've also been recently getting a lot of pain in my left wrist because of constantly stretching the skin around the tattoo," he says.
Chen has also experienced carpal tunnel syndrome and has been most recently wearing a wrist brace at night. "Just so that I don't move my wrist as much and just let it rest," he says.
He has noticed that switching over to using lighter rotary machines as opposed to standard coil machines, which are a lot quieter and lighter, has made a bit of a difference in terms of strain, he says.
Tattoo artists aren't the only ones experiencing physical strain on their bodies. Body piercers, hair stylists, and anyone who's prone to repetitive motions with their hands are bound to getting hit with musculoskeletal discomfort if they don't make adjustments to their workstation or take breaks from time to time to relieve themselves of pain.
"For tattoo artists, hair stylists or anybody holding a device with the tendons contracted and potentially flexing or holding against resistance, that nerve might be getting compressed over time," says Shawn Roll, assistant professor of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California. His research looks at causes of musculoskeletal discomfort when working, especially carpal tunnel syndrome and upper extremities disorder often caused by repetitive motions.
For professionals who often hold small instruments with repetitive gripping or pinch force, these repetitive activities have been linked to the development of problems and disorders, he explains. For body piercers and others in similar occupations where maintaining intensive focus on small objects can cause strain or fatigue, Roll recommends the use of a stand-alone magnification lens when working with small objects or doing precision work.
"Not only can magnification reduce eye strain by allowing a more relaxed focusing of the eyes, but it may also prevent the individual from leaning into their work thereby reducing strain on the back and neck muscles," Roll says.
Boge Gonzales, a body piercer at JuL•head in Alhambra, California, says in addition to her "poking" duties, she's also responsible for the sterilization of all jewelry, equipment, needles, and other piercing implements.
Body piercers also have to fit and look at the tiniest jewelry which can cause visual strain and affect eyesight. "My eyeglasses prescription have gone up. I would say at least every two years my numbers are going up. It's caused by constantly being under the bright lights and straining to see small things we're using. In the piercing room we do quite a bit of leaning over in order to do piercings—the inserting of jewelry," Gonzales says.
Nail technician Vicky Vo from West Covina, California, says she has experienced similar body stress. She works as an independent nail technician and often sees ten clients on busier days, applying and removing acrylic nails, gel polish, and a variety of other tasks. Many times, she experiences a "burning" sensation in her eyes due to what she believes is lamp exposure and from constant eye strain.
In order to minimize the strong smell of acetone, acrylic, and other harsh products, Vo makes use of Valentino Beauty Pure, a nail dust collector which she says has helped purify the air, and remove smells. Working independently from other employees has been helpful for Vo, since she at least doesn't compound the toxicity by having to inhale additional smells from other workstations.
Vo does wish that she had started using something like that 20 years ago, though. "When I first started, the smell and the fumes [were] really bad—it gave me allergies from the fumes. Sneezing and the runny nose," she says.
Jack Nguyen, a hairstylist opened his own salon—OMG Hair in San Gabriel, California—just five months ago. He says using a blowdryer every other day causes sporadic, painful wrist strain.
"You have to be consistent and repeat the motion and there's a certain angle you have to hold it. You have to hold it to a certain point that the heat doesn't blow into their face or scalp," says Nguyen, who says he will blowdry clients at least four to five hours a day.
Nguyen has also experienced back and neck problems when shampooing a client. He says he experiences physical pain on most days, but he tries to change his posture when he can. As far as harsh chemicals, Nguyen says there are times when certain smells will get to him. "The perm really stings. It gets me dizzy," he says.
Nguyen has put his life's work into this salon and sacrifices must be made in order to ensure the client is happy, he insists. He'll do anything to make sure the client is first, even if it means wearing down his back, neck, wrist, and shoulders. "I'm married to my business," he says.
Elizabeth Savala, senior instructor at Alhambra Beauty College, says she used to regularly cut and color hair as professional stylist for 20 years before she transitioned to become an educator to teach students a variety of hair styling tasks.
"We try our best to maintain a proper posture and proper hair cutting techniques so we don't encounter carpal tunnel. I have experienced carpal tunnel due to cutting because you rotate your wrist in many different ways. It's very exhausting work and mentally and physically challenging," she says.
Savala says that in recent years, the expectations for delivering high-quality results are especially demanding with all of the immaculately styled—and strategically angled—images that people post on social media.
"They don't show or tell you how long that picture took," she says. "I don't think people have the correct idea of what it takes."