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Ohio Man Brings Message to Traverse City Via Tattoo

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An Ohio man with terminal cancer is spreading his message of positivity to northern Michigan. He’s bringing his charisma, his hope, and his attitude and sharing it in an unusual way: by sharing “ink” with complete strangers. It started just a few years ago with his own cancer diagnosis, and now he wants to lift the spirits of others he meets along the way.

It’s showing the permanent power a tattoo can have.

Don Caskey is battling kidney cancer, but he’s not letting that slow him down. “I was diagnosed with terminal cancer two and a half years ago. And I said the only thing I can take with me when I pass away is memories. So I said I’m going to go ask random strangers to get matching tattoos, make a human connection. It’s a memory I can take with me when I pass away and leave a memory on them after I go.”

He’s trying to spread positivity and inspire people along the way – by spreading ink on his body. It started slow just two years ago on August 23, 2020. At that time, he had just half a dozen tattoos, but soon the ink started flowing. “After about 8 weeks I got one. Then within three months I had 100. And it just kept, it got way bigger than me,” he said. Now, he can’t stop.  “Including ones I got on my own, 505. So I’ve got quite a few.”

Don is up to 500 tattoos – most of them he gets with complete strangers he meets on the way. Together they get matching tattoos. “Every individual tattoo I’ve gotten is a story with that person. And it’s – they’re all unique.”

Elizabeth Pello from Gladwin met up with Don on social media. Now she too is getting a matching tattoo in Traverse City. “I saw him on social media and started following him. He has an inspiring story and seems like a cool guy – and he is.”

“I thought about getting a little goat, because I have goats and goats are cool. I don’t see a goat anywhere on him. He’s got pretty much everything else,” Pello says.

Don is up for pretty much anything. “I put it where I can fit it, they put it where they want it. Sometimes I pick what it is, sometimes they do. Sometimes we pick it together.”

It’s all part of his nonprofit – called “Stranger Ink” – designed to raise money for funeral expenses for people with terminal illnesses. “When you get a terminal illness, or sick period, it can take everything you’ve got. And most people spend what money they’ve got trying to stay alive.”

That message resonates with Pello. “I’ve had a lot of family members pass away from cancer. So it kind of hits home a little bit.”

“He’s got terminal cancer and you wouldn’t know it when you talk to him. The attitude is so positive,”He did Don’s first tattoo 16 years ago – purely by coincidence.

“The first tattoo I ever got was my kids’ names. Back 16 years ago,” Don said. But then Lee found him on social media last year. As Don tells it, “He said ‘man I’d love to meet you if you come up to Traverse City. Hear your story, tattoo you and whatnot.’ I said ‘bro you did my first tattoo 16 years ago!”

Lee laughs at the memory and says Don has changed a little since they met in Toledo back then. “I’ve done over 20,000 tattoos. I try to remember everybody but it’s impossible.”

Don says all of the 500 tattoos are memorable. Some for heart-wrenching reasons. Some make him laugh. But he keeps notes of when where and why he gets each and every one.  “We’re all just people. I don’t care who you are, where you come from, economic background, color of your skin. Any of that. It doesn’t really matter. We all have something in common.”

Don’s mission to make his mark will go on until he runs out of room – or until he can’t go anymore. “Well the cancer now, I’ve got six spots on my liver, I’ve got one on my only kidney, I’ve got one on my lung. I feel good. I’m going to keep going until I don’t feel good anymore. If I don’t feel good anymore I don’t want to be here anyway.”

To learn more about StrangerInk, .

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