Markus Lenhard: Workplace Ergonomics and Long Term Health Improvement Techniques for Tattoo Artists

By Markus Lenhard
After reading the [TAM Blog] post about health issues by Marcus Kuhn, I was inspired to share my own ramblings and experiences with you. Over the years I had countless tension migraines from working in sub-optimal lighting conditions, lower and upper back pain. Lumbago, cramps in the Shoulder, neck and head muscles resulting in different flavors of terrible multi day headaches. Tendonitis of the wrist, tendonitis of both elbows, cramps in the calf, tingly fingers and ass-cheeks to a total loss of feeling in some parts of my right thigh… I am out of permanent trouble for more than a year now. I still sometimes have a bit of a backache or long for a massage but then I am doing horrible long sessions on people who are traveling from far and sit on the computer a lot… 

My tattoo sessions can span from 6-12 hours a day sometimes so I simply had to find solutions that enable me to do this for a couple more years. I have been to acupuncturists, GP’s and Physio and massage therapists and none of those really know much about the working habits and horrible shit that tattooers do to themselves on a daily basis, so I had to read a little and listen a lot and then start trying things on my own, using my body as a gauge for success or failure.

Here is what I found so far: I am going to start with seating posture… I am hearing from a lot of people that they are advised to assume a straighter position by having a higher chair to straighten the legs and thus the lower back muscles.This makes perfect sense for desk work but none whatsoever for what we do. We tend to get very close to our subject to see better. So we are always arching our back. If the legs are bent in a 90-degree angle (as often advised) the lower back will be under copious amounts of stress when doing this.

It comes down to this, if you sit a certain way below your waist, you need to sit accordingly above your waist, otherwise you will be in pain. Since we are not that far away from our subjects, unless we get magnifying glasses for a thousand bucks and look like we are trying to be cast for the next big torture porn movie, we should try to assume a position that makes overall sense to what we actually do.

Our focus of attention is not always right there in front of us but sometimes in weird, hard to reach angles. Sometimes we have a glare on the skin that makes it hard to see so we are using a sub-optimal viewing angle… All of this is paid with a general uncomfy feeling which will lead to cramps and pain and often, long-term injury.

I have been to all of these places and tried multiple chairs from a very expensive high multi-adjustable saddle chair with coasters to a simple desk chair to just small fixed stools and fixed adjustable bouncy things or those funny rubber ball monstrosities. Also, I did a lot of thinking, tweaking my surroundings and streamlining my work habits…

It all comes down to this:

1. Before investing in an expensive chair, make sure you have a light source that is easily adjustable and/or gives you lots of light from multiple angles to prevent glare and relaxes your eyes and forehead from squinting or other tense grimacing that will result in headaches and worse once you’re older.

I built my own version of IKEA LED reading lights, a Tripod for heavy equipment and some flexible arms for photo studio-lighting and it looks like something out of “Logan’s Run.” It works beautifully and can be packed into a small package for travel. But there are also lots of other suited lamps out there which will do the trick and have the right light-color AND are easy to wrap, which we shouldn’t ever forget to look for in a lamp that is adjustable and thus needs to be touched!

2. Get a step or low stool or anything that elevates your feet. This will give you the means to rest your elbows on your knees which takes a lot of strain of your neck and shoulders and your whole upper back will feel good even after hours of work.

You basically sit like a coachman on an old carriage. That way you can lean forward without exerting strain on your back all the time. I started working a lot lower and having my subject almost at eye level so I don’t arch my back too much. But I ended up having to bring my arms up for too long and that gave me tension migraines at the end of the day. Resting your elbows is a way better way to do this.

It will also prevent tendonitis in your elbow on your stretching hand or your wrist in your machine hand because you are not tensing up so much.

3. Turn your footswitch into an on/off switch so you can take your foot of it. it will even out the weight you put on your seat bones and straighten out the whole treacherous, mal-designed column of bones that makes us all so miserable. This is where a lot of error actually starts.

People who carry a wallet in their back pocket while sitting down all the time should also adjust. I have moved my on/off switch to the top of my work surface and just press it with my machine hand. Once you are used to it you will never go back to footswitch. Plus you eliminate one cable from the bunch which is always great.

4. After all of this you can look into getting a good chair. there are no rules to this. I found that a chair without coasters makes more sense to me. Having your feet up and putting weight on your knees will make your chair want to roll back and that will mean you will need to tense up muscles in order to keep you where you are. So I got a chair that can turn and wobble but stands on a bouncy rubber donut so my ass can move around and my posture isn’t frozen in one position for hours. There are cheap and very expensive solutions for this. I have sat on those expensive spring things that are fixed once you sit but will coast when you lift your weight slightly.

And they are awesome. Since I have spent a metric ass-load of money on chairs though, and I have a cheap wobbly chair that works for me and is low enough, I will wait with this until I find a cheap one on eBay or one of my colleagues finds that it isn’t for him and sells his to me for tattoo work or something. If you find a chair that doesn’t coast and is height adjustable just remember, if you need to touch the chair to move it you will to be able to wrap up a spot to grab it with gloves (you are bound to forget or get annoyed with taking the gloves off every time). Consider that when buying a chair.

5. Get rid of your fixed table and get a workstation on wheels that is in the right height for you to work off of. It should be heavy, easy to set up and clean and contain everything you need so you don’t need to worry about it.

In the end it’s all about working in a relaxed manner and being able to adjust your work environment to every spot on the human body you need to work on. Sometimes you just need your shit on the left side or across an arm or to the right to be able to stay seated in good position and not make impossible contortions in order to dip into your cup just to fold your swiss army body back into working that tiny spot south of the armpit on that 300 lbs guy that just isn’t really trying to help you.

Sometimes, taking those extra five minutes to take of the glove, putting the lamp where is needed, getting another armrest out and wrap it up, move the workstation to the other side and turning the client around is all the patience that is needed to not feel like a 90-year-old coal miner the next day.

6. I mentioned it in the last point… Arm rests. Have enough and have good ones. You can also use one for resting YOUR arm when working in a shitty spot like a stomach or chest where you can’t really rest your elbows on your knees.

Get one that is really adjustable and sturdy, or have one made for you. even for the client is sometimes just nice to have two armrests for the upper and lower arm when working on the inside or bicep. Remember you need to always work in the best, most comfortable position for both involved parties. a stressed out, uncomfortable customer is a pain in the ass and will make you tense.

7. Last but not least: Wrap up everything as good as you can. Being relaxed also means to be able to focus on a the most important task. the tattoo.

If you have to divert your attention to what you can and can’t touch you are making it harder on yourself than necessary. spending more time on setting up your station before you start will result in a lot less time spent in a horribly inadvisable spinal contortion, too. All this is about your workstation and surroundings, here is some stuff that involves you directly:

  • Doing stretches is really good to prevent and also to heal tendonitis. Once you have it, you will have to take ibuprofen to subdue the inflammation and gently stretch the muscles surrounding the stressed tendon. There are different stretches for the stretch and for the machine hand. We tend to use the muscles in our palm and inside of the lower arm of the machine side more than the outside.

It’s the other way around with the stretch side. So those muscles are thickening and shortening over time. Limiting the range of motion and tightening the spaces in which nerves, blood vessels and ligaments are situated. This results in ligaments rubbing against muscle to a point where they are becoming inflamed or nerves to be squeezed by a swollen ligament or muscle to a point where our fingers begin to tingle or other even worse signs of shit hitting the fan.

By stretching those muscles you can prevent almost all of the above. So don’t forget that. it’s important and will actually really help keeping those money makers in good working order. I have tried acupuncture in the past when my tendonitis was the worst and I did have a feeling that it worked. But I also at the same time I took ibuprofen and did my stretches… back than I might have given the most exotic sounding treatment the most credit… who knows.

Right now taking anti-inflammatory drugs and doing the stretches still keeps me in the green. Even after I forget doing them for a year or so and feel a tendon starting to act up I can get it back in check with these techniques within a week or two…

  • And of course it has to come to this but is just as true as all the above: Eat less, move more. Muscle is better than fat for stabilizing that back. There that’s enough I said it… like others before me a thousand times… without being patronizing or anything but you also will be all around better adjusted if you do some minor work out and eat more healthy. Which simply means, more protein, less fat and sugar.

All around try to use all the calories you gobble up over the day and you are a champ! How you achieve that is totally up to you. I don’t believe in diets and I hate the term healthy for food. it is just so full of misconceptions and myths I wouldn’t even know where to start. So don’t listen to anybody trying to sell you something or who doesn’t seem like (s)he found something that works and might also work for you. Know thyself…I know how hard this is to achieve for many of us. I have to force myself through this after each time I lost interest in my body and had to pay the bill a year or so later.

Markus Lenhard is a tattooer and blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine and can be found at his web site:

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20 thoughts on “Markus Lenhard: Workplace Ergonomics and Long Term Health Improvement Techniques for Tattoo Artists

  1. What an amazing blog contribution, Markus!
    This has some really great suggestions for people to begin experimenting with.

    Q: How the hell did you manage to write it, shoot the photos for it, AND then add all those notes to your photos…all the day after you read the Kuhn blog?? (Markus sent it the morning after the first Health post.)
    …I think maybe you got too much time on your hands…hahaha.

    Actually, I just want to thank you for taking the time to do it, man!
    It’s really great to see some more of the real potentials of this blog-experiment start to blossom. It’s been a long time we’ve been planting and watering the seeds and I’m stoked to have some new people responding to it.
    Kinda makes it all worth the effort! haha.

  2. Great post. It never occurred to me to use my arm rest as an arm/chest support. A lot of really useful tips here to digest. With regards to lighting I use a head torch as it keeps light constant no matter the funny position… I do look like a dork with it on though. Cheers.

  3. This is a much overlooked subject in our field and I’m glad someone has addressed it. After working for 40 years and learning much of what I know from other more “seasoned” veterans like Zeke Owen (who is all about working more quickly and efficiently), I’d say that there are a few other ways we can prevent damage to our bodies.

    1) Having your work area significantly lower than a standard counter space is key. You should only have to swivel (and that’s key too) just a few degrees if necessary in your chair to access your inks, etc. Most people HOIST their arms up and over to a counter top that is waaaayyy too high, thereby putting unnecessary strain on neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Keep it low and close.

    2) Biggest change you can make immediately is to stop filling your soap and alcohol bottles to full for each tattoo. I use a very small bottle for each liquid I use. Who goes through a quart of soap in a DAY?!? No one. And with such a gigantic weight of water stressing your joints, over and over again, causes real problems. Use smaller bottles — those who hold a cup or so — and change daily. The added benefit is that you won’t have stale, decaying soap products sitting around for days at a time, festering with all kinds of nasties. Fresh is better, I always say. Sit close to your client, move as seldom as possible in your work and get up every 45 minutes for a stretch, walk about and hydrate with water.

    These things have helped me. And after breaking my back five times, I need all the help I can get…

  4. that i so true . Im a fresh tatooist as i have only been doing this for tree years and only last week got my first job in the shop .so doing it frome home i know all about dodgy positions and i have been using a low chair which allowed me to rest my elbows on my knees . nice to know Im doing something right

    thanks Marcus your a great artist and a great inspiration

  5. Adrian, glad to hear you’ve decided to finally take the craft of tattooing seriously by getting into a shop! Don’t go back to unhygienic circumstances, ever. The people who trust you to tattoo them DESERVE to be S-A-F-E!

    Now that you’re willing to learn…here’s some FREE TIPS:
    Work HARD to perfect your craft. Learn from everyone you can. Get tattooed by tattooers you respect or who inspire you. Pay attention and take every bit of it seriously, because we do.

    And listen, every single one of us started at virtually the same place…
    Young and Dumb. The rest is hard work. Get to it.

  6. This is a fantastic write up, that can save alot of misery for peoples. Lot’s of great tips. Not having a wallet in your back pocket is huge. I’d like to share a trick I use, that relates to covering surfaces. When I tattoo I look ridiculous because I wear a disposable apron, and arm sleeves on both arms. It’s not the most fashionable but has great benefits. By covering your forearms you can plant your wrist very well while tattooing and don’t have to worry about the cuff of the glove riding up, and getting blood and tattoo grossness on you. Also when tattooing on a large area like the ribs or other areas you can rest your weight on the customers body, alleviating the strain of leaning forward. I even have had some clients comment that it is comforting to be tattooed like that.
    Also when you are worried about getting your wrists nastified (which we all very well should be) You put your hand in awkward positions. Which can comprimise getting the optimal angle for performance, and cause much extra wrist and hand strain. Wrapping your wrists is a little sweaty in the summer, But with the added freedom it allows while working on large scale pieces, the trade off is so worth it.

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