Although tattooing, both as an artform and a profession, has been around for centuries, only recently has the world outside the industry begun to understand the nuances of the job, especially when it comes to physicality. Tattooing is a very physically demanding job and over time, the long hours, uncomfortable positions and generally poor habits can yield serious health consequences. No one knows this unfortunate reality better than Durb Morrison, who began tattooing over 28 years ago and despite his active lifestyle, has suffered extreme consequences. “About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with meralgia paresthetica, which is the compression of the femoral nerve. I later learned that I had a herniation of the T7 vertebra that I’m becoming mildly paralyzed from.”
Morrison’s health problems didn’t come all at once, they built gradually over time and at first, he went about treating his back pain through conventional methods. “I probably started noticing pain in my back and hips eight to ten years into tattooing,” shares Morrison. “I was tattooing for long hours doing big back pieces and sleeves. And that’s when the degenerative states can begin with your shoulders and your back.” Morrison started off by treating what he believed to be tight muscles and possibly arthritis with visits to a chiropractor and massage therapists, however it took visiting a medical doctor to understand the issue: his spine. From there, he came to the conclusion that his health problems resulted from the physical demands that this profession requires. “You wouldn’t think that something so stationary would hurt your body so badly, you know?” says Morrison. “But those are the things that always hurt your body the worst. If you were running or moving around, tension would distribute throughout your body. But in tattooing, your spine, back muscles, and shoulders take the brunt of it.”
While many professionals experience back pain from years of hunching over a desk, artists are practically required to have poor posture in order to meet the demands tattooing requires. “As a tattooer, you’re planting your hips, not using your legs and instead are using your spine, abs and lower back muscles,” Morrison explains. “From twisting side to side, tattoo artists form larger muscles on one side of their back which puts tension on the spine. This causes a lot of tattooers to have lower lumbar issues because your back has to do more work to hold these positions. Any machine is going to break down if you do that to it.”
Since learning of his condition, Morrison has come to terms with the inevitable fate that tattoo artists are either already encountering or will experience as time goes on. However, instead of sitting back, he’s leaned in to the issue and believes that there are ways to prevent these problems in younger artists. And that’s by making this information available so that artists can get a handle on their health to ensure long, prosperous and pain-free careers. “The second you start dealing with pain, pay attention to it and don’t ignore it by pushing on to your next client,” shares Morrison. “All tattoo artists should have an exercise or stretching regimen. After tattooing, they don’t go home or go to the drawing table, but instead stretch and strengthen their bodies to reverse the hunch.” Morrison also recommends artists cut down their sessions from their normal six to eight hours to just three hours at a time, which can benefit both the artist and the client.
Because of the increasing demands for long sessions on large pieces, with some artists regularly tattooing for eight to ten hours straight, they will begin to see the physical impact much faster than their predecessors. “Back in the day, tattoo artists from the sixties and seventies don’t have the type of back problems that affect today’s tattooers because they were doing smaller tattoos,” says Morrison. “Today’s artists are doing back piece after back piece. The size and detail of the tattoos being done today demand more hours, which break down the body much faster.” And although these changes will require some serious sacrifices from artists, especially in a world that is increasingly demanding more, they can make a huge impact when it comes to career longevity. “This information could have made all the difference in the world,” Morrison shares. “I could have tattooed for another twenty years comfortably and had a fifty year career if I hadn’t spent so much time hunching over to tattoo.”
But, when it comes to getting the word out to the thousands of artists out there, Morrison can’t do it alone. If tattoo artists want to make a difference in their lives, as well as the lives of the next generation, this information needs to be presented at the very start. “Health awareness should be a part of every apprenticeship,” says Morrison. “The kids getting into tattooing won’t know this and the goal of sharing this information is to prevent it from happening for they can extend their careers. You learn about sterilization to prevent you from getting a disease or cross-contaminating a client. But artists should also be aware of how to take care of the other parts of their bodies.”