Q, from Ryan: I'm a little over 6' tall and I find it extremely difficult to tattoo without leaning over. Because of this I've developed constant back strain that even multiple different chiropractors and massage therapists haven't been able to fix. Are there any tattoo chairs or massage tables that would be ideal for taller artists? I bump my knees on the cords underneath the tables I've tried, forcing me to lean over.
I've torn a ligament in my back, and since then it's just been a constant problem rather than something that happened only after a long day of work. Any stretches that would be specific to lower back pain would also be great to know.
A: I'm one of the fortunate ones who has mostly avoided serious back problems despite very long hours. My issues have been with the hands, wrists and right leg, but that's another topic for another day. The back is where most artists will encounter problems first, and when it gets bad enough there is simply no way to tattoo. I remember once waking up so sore that I fell out of bed, unable to breathe. There can be no tattooing on days like that, and for someone who feels this way often, I can completely understand why radical surgery might sound like a good choice. But let's talk about all the less invasive options first.
Now I have mainly avoided back problems, and I think it's mostly because of my posture. When I sit to tattoo I am basically a beanpole, with the weight of my head centered above by hips so my center of gravity is, well, centered (Fig. 1). Once you are gravitationally hanging out away from your center, that's when the problems start cropping up. Sitting straight may sound like something your mother would nag you about, but it's fundamental. However, it's not always easy to sit properly- your work setup needs to be built around that.
I'm 6'2", so I get it- often you are a bit higher up than the tattoo you are doing. For starters, you and your client need to be flexible- be sure that their chair can raise high enough up to get them to a good height, and that your chair can lower enough to place you at the right level relative to them. Both chairs must be comfortable too. I don't have a specific brand or style of chair that I recommend, just that the artist's chair should be capable of going pretty low and the client's chair should go fairly high. It should also be lockable so that once you get them into a good position they will stay there (Many good office chairs can lock).
Having you and the client at good relative heights is an important start; next you need to get everything else in place. I prefer working from a rolling stainless steel cart, so that once my client and I are in position I can roll the work station into place so that the palette is as close to the tattoo as possible- avoiding extra leaning and reaching is critical to preventing stress on the body. Having movable lights that can be positioned and aimed right where the light is needed can also be very helpful- if you can't see, you need to lean in closer, hence more strain.
I've also found that the footswitch can be problematic- it gets chased away and often we are so focused on the tattoo that much of the session is spent with a leg extended way out to reach the pedal, leading to an awkward position overall. Don't let this happen- and I also highly recommend that you take turns using both feet for the switch to keep your body position from getting locked.
So that's a lot of the solution right there- proper height, position, and posture for you and your client, and a good ergonomic setup that puts everything in easy reach. But there's more that you can do: A few basic stretches can make a big difference. A number of tattooists that I know do yoga at least several times a week, which they say is very helpful. If your problem is chronic enough, yoga is probably worth looking into, possibly at a yoga place where you can get some proper instruction in finding the right poses to benefit your particular condition.
But for most of us, when the pain is getting bad during the work day, stopping to do an hour of poses is not an option, so a few simple stretches can really help. First of all, don't wait for it to get bad- if you are 5 hours into your session and in excruciating pain, it's already too late for you to turn that around. I recommend doing stretches every two hours or so. This is when I am normally doing my hand and eye stretches, but each of us has different needs.
My favorite two back stretches are easy to do while standing up in a crowded tattoo environment. You will want to look into a more comprehensive stretching routine for before and after work, but during the work day these should be enough to make a difference. First, start by standing up and taking off your gloves. Wrap your arms around yourself like you are giving yourself a hug, with your hands touching your shoulder blades. Without straining yourself, extend your hands around your body so that you feel your shoulder blades open up. Then bend at the waist carefully so that you sort of hang in there (Fig. 2). Relax for a moment in this position; take deep breaths, and with each inhalation and exhalation, try to release more of the tension in your upper and lower back.
When you've completed this stretch, stand up straight, shake out, then put your hands behind your back, elbows straight, with your fingers interlocked. Spread your feet apart and bend slowly at the waist again (Fig. 3); what you should be feeling in your back is kind of the opposite of what the previous stretch did. This should help open up the muscles at both the front and back of your torso, affecting the whole muscle system including the lower back. Much lower back pain comes from being tense all over and from sustaining bad positioning for too long. Keep the whole muscle system loose and avoid the wrong positions and you'll be in way better shape.
Simple core strengthening exercises, which you can find in exercise videos such as P90X (my wife's favorite), will also go a long way toward giving your spine the extra support it needs. And keeping your body close to your ideal weight is also key- once you get past a certain weight, back problems become much harder to avoid. If your back pain is bad enough to threaten your career, a few lifestyle changes are actually not nearly as big of a deal as they might seem at first.
No simple stretch will resolve chronic serious problems, and in some cases it's best to seek professional help. But it's always worth trying stretches and exercises first. Being mindful of your position at all times is a tough habit to get into but with enough effort it will become second nature so that you simply won't be straining yourself the way you used to. All of these factors- position, work setup, stretching and general health- are all within your control. It may take a little extra focus at first but you can't put a price on being able to continue your career.