By Jim McCarthy and Tiffany Duong

Avid diver and local tattoo artist Cassandra Clark wanted to become a part of the coral restoration effort having seen a gradual decline of the reef. Receiving her diver master certification from Key Dives two years ago, she’s now teaming up with the local dive shop and another Marathon tattoo shop to benefit local reef restoration.

Clark, who works at South of Heaven in Key Largo, and Doc’s Tattooz have drawn up various designs people can choose from to get inked and benefit I.CARE, the local nonprofit formed by Key Dives owner Mike Goldberg and Kylie Smith to restore local Islamorada reefs. For every tattoo from these “flash sheet” tattoos done in December, 50% will go to the cause, Clark said.

“Since I’m a tattoo artist, I have the ability to do fundraisers where I can help local organizations and help raise large amounts of funds,” said Clark, who’s been diving since 2015. “I really wanted to help our reefs because our local economy needs healthy corals.”

Located at 10939 Overseas Highway in Marathon, Doc’s Tattooz owner Allen Mertsock signed his shop up for the fundraising effort when he heard about it from Clark, who is a friend.

Allen Mertsock, owner of Doc’s tattoos in Marathon, inks a client while observing strict COVID-19 safety protocols. CONTRIBUTED

“Cassandra wanted to do something to benefit the reefs, and of course we wanted to be on board,” Mertsock said. “We’re all in this together. It’s really, really important to protect the reef.”

Doc’s, which has been in business for over 20 years, is no stranger to benefit tattooing. During Hurricane Irma, Mertsock raised almost $800 for the American Legion to help those in need. Now, he, Tony Napoli (the other artist at Doc’s), and Clark are teaming up to help restore the reef.

Flash tattoos are especially-created for mass-tattoo events such as the I.CARE benefit and are usually designs that have never been done before, Mertsock said. Doc’s has hundreds of designs available for the flash benefit, not all of which are coral or ocean related. Notable drawings he’s created for I.CARE include a cool Tiki god, a geisha and a tropical hibiscus in a vase.

Clark said her designs emphasize the local reef and creatures that people don’t necessarily pay attention to. While many people see and know turtles, Clark said there are also balloon fish and puffer fish that are now becoming rare to find while diving.

“Another rare species is the flamingo tongue, which is this little sea snail thing. They bring me so much joy when I’m diving, and no one really knows about them,” she said.

Along with spreading awareness of what are now rare sea creatures, Clark said, she wants to educate people who come in her chair on how to get involved. She’s an active member of Key Dives’ cleanup dives, having taken anchors and fishing line off corals.

“We’re destroying this, and there’s so many people in our local area who don’t care. I wanted to show I.CARE,” she said.

Clark tattooed an anatomically correct stoplight parrotfish on Smith, I.CARE’s co-founder and lead scientist, in October, and several in the I.CARE and Key Dives communities are pushing Goldberg to get his first tattoo, of I.CARE naturally, once the organization is fully operating.

Doc’s tattoo artist Tony Napoli works on a client while observing strict COVID-19 safety protocols. CONTRIBUTED

“Cassandra is an amazing human being – such a strong advocate for conservation and a truly talented artist,” Smith said. “We are so lucky to have her working as hard as she does to spread the message about I.CARE and help us raise money.”

Smith and Goldberg are “constantly amazed” by the creative ways that local businesses are supporting I.CARE.

“We wouldn’t exist without their support and this tells us that everyone down here cares about the future of our coral reefs,” Smith added. “This truly is a community effort and it gives us so much hope for the future of our coral reefs!”

Those wishing to get a tattoo from Clark can call ahead and say they want an I.CARE tattoo. Or, people can walk in and pick a design they’d like. Clark said she’s willing to do something that’s not been pre-drawn that’s coral- or ocean-related.

Doc’s posts its new designs on its social media pages daily. Pick one you like or ask for something different. For an I.CARE tattoo at Doc’s, email [email protected] or direct message the shop on their social media pages.

I.CARE tattoo designs by Cassandra Clark at South of Heaven in Key Largo. CONTRIBUTED
Tattoo designs by Doc’s Tattooz in Marathon. CONTRIBUTED

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Tiff Duong is a self-made mermaid who loves all things cheesy (romantic and dairy) and thrives in the 3 am hour. She believes in leaving it all on the field and has never met a (mis)adventure she didn't love.