As far as midlife crises go, mine is colorful. It’s also painful, expensive, and permanent.
My journey began at the 2022 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, where the magazine partnered with a tattoo shop offering festivalgoers Texas Monthly–designed tattoos of anthropomorphic foods, such as pork ribs and tacos. (They will be available this year, too.) My schedule prevented me from getting a taco inked on my body that day, but I promised myself it wouldn’t be long before I got one.
In January I walked into Bat and Cave Tattoo in Dallas and made good on the promise, adding the word “Martes,” Tuesday in Spanish, below the smiling taco. It hurt. I gritted my teeth and mumbled a series of expletives. My teenage son, who was with me, said my face turned green.
That night, I half-jokingly told my wife that, at 46, I decided Mexican food–themed tattoos are my midlife crisis. Tattoos are no longer taboo. Thirty-two percent of Americans have at least one, and 46 percent of Americans between 30 and 49 years old are inked, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center study. “Why would I spend so much money on silly, perhaps regretful things when that cash could go toward experiences such as traveling and dining?” I asked her rhetorically, as I scrolled through Instagram for tattooers to follow.
My wife wasn’t going to argue tattoos are bad. When we met in our mid-twenties, she had seven tattoos and I had zero. At some point, I made a crack about what my first tattoo might look like. Then, one night, while walking from work, I passed a parlor with a photo of the exact tattoo I had joked would be my one and only. I acquired five more tattoos by 2008, the year our son was born.
“Martes” was my sixth tattoo. Within a week, I made arrangements for a tattoo of a trompo with muralist and tattooer Pablo Hernandez, owner of Tinta Sangre in El Paso. When I visited the studio in February, it was mere months old. Hernandez and his staff of tattooers specialize in Indigenous iconography inspired by the art of the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico. Feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, god of creation, was a popular tattoo among clients, as were Mexican foods such as corn. It made perfect sense that I—someone who lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps Mexican food and culture—had to get a tattoo from Hernandez.
Weeks after the trompo tattoo, I was en route to Laredo for research. In the car, I changed my Instagram status to something about heading to the border. Gabe Rodriguez, owner of Por Vida Tattoos in Laredo, messaged me in response, asking me where I was heading. “To you,” I replied. With that, the opportunity for a new tattoo presented itself. Within moments, I texted my wife for her favorite concha color. Pink, of course. It was settled. After a little back-and-forth, Rodriguez said he was game to tattoo a pink concha on my right upper arm. But he also wanted to see my Laredo food itinerary (some of his recommendations made it onto my Laredo Taco Trail). A few months later, I went back to Rodriguez to get a rooster with a burrito in its claw tattooed on my left leg.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time scouring the internet for tattoo inspiration photos, which I’ve filed into a photo album on my phone. The album includes photos of chiles, avocados, tortillas, phases of the moon, paletas, nopales, agaves, cazos (the cauldrons used for preparing carnitas), aguas frescas, luchador masks, calaveras, ocotillos, and cornstalks. They all represent my personal connection to tacos and Mexican food, and the hallmarks of who I’ve been and am currently. The tattoos also represent the stories of the people I write about.
Ahead of a reporting trip to Oaxaca, for which my wife tagged along, I looked for studios in the capital city at her behest. She liked the idea of getting tattoos on trips as mementos. We scheduled time with the owner of Tinta Sangre Tatuajes (no relation to the shop in El Paso). My wife got a wood-block-print-style potted thorny flower. I opted for an abstract ear of corn on the back of my right arm. It was the most painful tattoo I’ve ever received and I bled a lot too. For that I blame the myriad copitas of mezcal I drank earlier in the day. When I mentioned the liquor, the shop apprentices served me mezcal from the store’s stash. It helped, but only a little. After our session, we walked down the street to the legendary taqueria cart El Lechoncito de Oro for juicy suckling pig on corn tortillas. As I stood in the amber light of the stand, I was already devising my next batch of tattoos.
Next up was another visit with Hernandez in El Paso for a laurel wreathlike arch of nopales. Between the appointment and the visit, another of Tinta Sangre’s tattooers, Tavo Cordova, posted an Instagram story with a question: What kind of tattoo would you choose if it cost $100? I answered, “chiles,” and Cordova responded, “I’m down, carnal.” We scheduled the session for after my appointment with Hernandez. The only parameters I had were that the tattoo be on the left side of my left leg, in black and gray, and that it be in his preferred style. Cordova freehanded the image, then I laid down for ninety minutes while he finished the piece: five beautiful chiles bunched up like grapes. I dedicated it to my chile-head teenage son.
From almost the beginning, I’d wanted a tattoo of an avocado half with the pit replaced with the four-star dragon ball from the anime franchise Dragon Ball. The art would combine a staple fruit of Mexican food with another important aspect of my life: my love of nerd culture.
I finally got my dream tattoo this month by Donté Williams, co-owner of No Ragrets Tattoos & Piercing (clever name) in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood. The Black- and Latino-owned shop was decorated with fandom merchandise, and anime was playing on TV. The shop was a space for geeks of color like myself. I enjoyed the camaraderie. It helped alleviate the pain of the tattoo needles.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to walk through the world on a sidewalk of absurdity. It’s helped in an often cynical, callous reality. Tattoos are silly and add a spot of color to life, even if approximately 30 percent of tattooed Hispanics regret their body modifications, according to the aforementioned Pew study. In my more-than-twenty years of getting tattoos, I haven’t regretted one.
But as the year winds down and my tattoo accumulation continues, I’ve come to question whether my midlife crisis might actually be an addiction. I reached out to professionals in the fields of tattooing and counseling.
A midlife crisis might manifest from a sense of inadequacy, helplessness, and desire, according to David Thompson, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and a doctoral student in the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Counseling. “When I hear tattoos, it sounds like it’s a thing that may be related to some deferred desire to express oneself in ways that were cost-prohibitive at another stage or the standard of professionalism has shifted over time,” Thompson says.
Freedom is a significant factor, or, as Thompson mentioned during our phone call, tattoos in midlife could also be framed as a new hobby. But “when you’re talking about bringing things that are internal to external, it can often be to find one’s community or find like-minded people,” he adds. I recognize that the tattoos have connected me to the many tattooed chefs, cooks, and taqueros I interact with.
Thompson isn’t keen on describing this phenomenon as addiction. He thinks it falls more readily into compulsions, where the thrill of the occasional dopamine burst might lead to walking into a tattoo shop, not something that one’s body is dependent on or desires uncontrollably. Thompson is clear about one thing: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting a painful experience to bring you some sort of satisfaction,” he stresses.
Sarah Matthews, an apprentice at Bat and Cave Tattoo, agrees with Thompson in many ways, but has strong differing opinions when it comes to other aspects of midlife and addiction. The 27-year-old holds a master’s degree in counseling from Dallas Baptist University. As she took on patients, she realized she’d eventually experience burnout, so she returned to her lifelong love of art via tattooing. Matthews also did my latest tattoos, a lone chile and a paleta cart on my left upper arm, and an orange paleta dripping with chamoy and Tajín on my right upper arm.
But does she believe in midlife crises? “Any of those times where you’re really deeply reflecting can be a catalyst for a midlife crisis,” she says. That includes tattoos. “Any type of body modification [at a later age] is an expression of that, because you’re looking at the person as reflecting back on their life and they’re saying, ‘oh, my gosh, I’m either changing in these ways and I don’t like it, or I’ve always been this.’ ”
Unlike Thompson, Matthews believes in tattoo addiction. “I’ve seen it become an addiction in people who are high on ADHD categories or any personality disorders,” she says. Matthews also sees tattooing as an alternative for people with a self-harming history. “They use this as a coping mechanism,” she explains. When I asked her to diagnose me, she deflected, saying only, “[tattooing] becomes self-expression. [Some people] have to get as many as possible to reflect who they are.”
I certainly am projecting my internal self into the external to signal parts of my identity. Perhaps what I’m experiencing is another aspect of a compulsion to share my history so that others might feel seen, such as with my stutter. At least I can rest easy that my crisis hasn’t involved buying sports cars, as the cliche goes. Tattoos fade, but their significance remains important. I look forward to getting a new tattoo next month.