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Friday, March 10, 2017

World's Largest Tattoo Gallery

Marion Renault The Columbus Dispatch @MarionRenault

Chris Churchill’s first tattoo, a thick band that wraps around his right upper arm, took one painful summer to complete.

He still leaves hours-long tattoo sessions feeling sore. But now, as an artist with 17 years of experience, Churchill’s aches stem from being on the other side of the needle.

To create intricate designs on a living canvas, tattoo artists sit, hunch, crouch and crane their necks for hours on end — all while steadily gripping a vibrating tattoo gun. For Churchill, the backache sets in first, followed by arm cramps, headaches and eye-strain.

“We’re not getting knocked around, but it’s intense,” he said. “Within three or four hours, it hits me like a ton of bricks.”

In the first study to directly measure the job’s physical toll, researchers at Ohio State University found that aches and pains are universal among tattoo artists.

“People just view this as a part of the job,” said OSU ergonomist Carolyn Sommerich, who co-authored the study. “There are a lot of things working against them being comfortable.”

Despite the multibillion-dollar industry’s popularity — about 1 in 3 Americans has at least one tattoo — artists rarely have access to workers’ compensation or health insurance if they get injured.

For the study, Sommerich and a former graduate student spent a summer measuring the muscle activity of 10 central Ohio tattoo artists during sessions that lasted as long as three hours. The pair also photographed the artists' posture at regular intervals.

They found all the study’s participants overworked at least one muscle group, notably the upper back muscles connecting either side of the neck to the shoulder blades.

“The postures they’re holding are quite awkward. It’s very hard on the body,” Sommerich said.

As tattoos lose their cultural taboo and designs become increasingly customized, the industry is poised to keep growing at an estimated 13 percent annually.

“Tattooing is bigger than ever. What used to be stigmatic is now popular,” said Durb Morrison, who owns RedTree Tattoo Gallery in Columbus and gives traveling lectures on tattoo artist longevity.

“Everybody wants to be a tattoo artist right now.”

He said that means artists new and old should take steps to avoid injury.

“They’re staying on the grind,” Morrison said. “You focus on ... the client, the artwork — you’re focused on everything else but yourself.”

Morrison started raising the flag for artist health after he developed a nerve condition that caused one of his legs to go numb.

Around the country, he hears stories of artists suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and bursitis. Colleagues of Churchill’s have resorted to wearing back braces or having surgery for herniated discs — often on their own dime.

“Mostly, you have to suck it up and fight through it,” Churchill said. “We’re aching like old men.”

Other jobs that involve detailed handwork while hunching over clients — such as dental hygiene or surgery — fall under the umbrellas of national organizations that set ergonomic guidelines for avoiding injury.

No such group exists in the United States for tattoo artists, Sommerich said. They also lack specialized seating that could help relieve strain.

So her research team also came up with suggestions for tattoo artists to avoid injury. She advises artists to move around frequently and build their daily schedules to balance large tattoos with smaller ones and to vary the body parts.

Morrison suggests stretching at every break in a session and opting for loose clothing. He also makes sure to keep his studio well-lit and stocked with ergonomic chairs for the artists.

Churchill also isn’t shy about asking a client to change positions. After all, he said, it's better for a client's leg to cramp or an arm to fall asleep if it means the tattoo isn’t ruined by an artist’s muscle spasm or fatigue.

As independent contractors, tattoo artists also face financial hurdles that make working through pain seem worthwhile.

Because they are typically self-employed and rent studio space, artists rarely have access to a company's health insurance plan or workers’ compensation.

On top of that, launching a career as a tattoo artist can be expensive. Equipment, unpaid apprenticeships and license fees add up. Once established, the median annual salary for a tattoo artist is about $30,000.

Churchill, who works at Evolved Body Art on High Street near the OSU campus, said that since pay is based on commission, artists are motivated to max out on clients and pieces.

So he places a high value on his well-being by exercising, eating healthy food and getting plenty of sleep. He also listens to his body when it screams out for a break from what he's doing.

“Usually at that point, (the client is) OK with stopping anyway,” he laughed.

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