INDESTRUCTIBLE: Tattoo and Essay that Stand the Test of Time

In honor of the Tattoo Convention this weekend, I wanted to share something TOTALLY, AMAZINGLY AWESOME I found when I was first getting this blog up and running and searching for old images of the Valley.

THIS TATTOO. Wow, talk about dedication to your city!  If it’s not instantly obvious, that’s a tattoo of the Bethlehem Steel Mills.

This tattoo belongs to a somewhat anonymous woman named Sarah Andrew. In 2004, she wrote an essay about why she has the steel mills tattooed across her back on a website called Save Our Steel, which aims (aimed?) to support the use of the old steel mills for a redeveloped historic district.

As for Sarah and her tattoo, read her beautiful and inspiring ESSAY UNDER THE CUT. It literally gave me goosebumps.

(If anyone knows Sarah, please tell her to contact me!)

Why I Have the Bethlehem Steel Tattooed Across My Back

By Sarah Andrew, 1/22/2004

The Bethlehem Steel, that mass of jumbled metal and heartbeat pumping years of spirit, scrap, and history from the acid banks of the Lehigh River. That keeper of memories, that heroic skyscape jutting up from our sunken valley. It’s sacred as a footprint, toxic as the depths of the earth, red as blood, and it sits there idly, reminding. The company that gave life to the Lehigh Valley has been history for me since I was born, despite continued operation through the first 15 years of my life. These were years of billowing smoke, fire in the sky, middle shift and layoffs. Years of great mystery: Will dad find another job soon? Are we poor now?

But there were jobs at other plants nearby, more hours and less benefits for a member of the electrical crew; my father with his silly nickname. By the time I was in high school the mechanism for production had slowed, and by the time I was in college it had halted completely. Unfortunately for the workers of our nation, this erosion was in progress throughout the country. The virus of technology wormed its way through to California, and industry was shipped from those shores to foreign lands, without so much as a gentle handshake or tidy handkerchief wave. An era had passed into history.

Unlike many other fragile relics of bygone days, the Steel is not something we can hide in our attics, in dusty cardboard boxes, to be dug out for our children years ahead. It is not an antique picture that you frame and place next to your grandparents on the buffet. There is nothing lacy or polished about it, nothing small or delicate. It took years of big business and government subsidies to build that monster, and we will not save it with bake sales and the whimsical gifting of eccentric history buffs.

Certain critics of late have cited that the preservationists in this equation had plenty of time to raise those $240 million to save the No.2 Machine Shop. The reality is that each of us in the mere citizenry, ardent preservationists included, has personal hurdles and responsibilities that come first. And so we elect politicians to concentrate full-time on the direction of our small city. It is our job as taxpayers to encourage our political representatives to operate within the confines of reason, fairness, and appropriateness. The National Museum of Industrial History is a noble cause, and the unique structures that would house it should not be abandoned in favor of more hastily undertaken development that is both spiritually and historically bankrupt. There is more to value on this land than what is immediately profitable.

So what value then does mere history hold? Maybe the Plant is just another prop, a backdrop, a prologue to the future of industry. But it holds something within itself that we would do better to recognize. The Bethlehem Steel is a monument, yes and rightfully so, but it is also a symbol. The push to demolish this absolutely unique structure, both No.2 Machine Shop and the Blast Furnaces, is so narrow as to betray the shallowness of our present moment in time. When symbols lose all meaning, when they become less valuable than a silently waddling tax base, we erase a bit more of our heritage and legacy, sell another piece of our dwindling soul. Our nation was built on thrift and reason, humble beginnings for what is now such a massive enterprise. But what if we had melted down the Liberty Bell, because it can no longer ring? What if we had allowed the Constitution to disintegrate, because there is no longer a need for yellowing parchment? What if we had built strip malls and bowling alleys over the rolling fields of Gettysburg, because such vast green space holds only the value of potential development? What would school field trips to the Nation’s capital look like today with no Washington Monument, too readily a target for those ubiquitous terrorists? We cherish these symbols of our democracy, regardless of their apparent uselessness, their antiquity.

In the Moravian Industrial Quarters of Historic Bethlehem, we are able to reach back into past centuries and build them up again with stone and mortar, positioning stylish plaques to tell their tales. But we will not be able to resurrect this beast once we sweep it from the face of the earth. To save it will show an uncharacteristic level of foresight that will surely be celebrated in the future. For now, the monument stands, restfully retired against the mountains and sky that frame it. If it falls today, it will remain upon my back, and upon the backs of each one of us as we forge ahead into an unfamiliar future. But then we, too, shall pass into dust. And who will be left to tell this story?


Filed under Tattoos

4 responses to “INDESTRUCTIBLE: Tattoo and Essay that Stand the Test of Time

  1. Sarah

    Hi there,
    It was nice meeting you yesterday at the Guide release event in A-town. Great blog! I see from reading your posts that we know a lot of the same people. The valley can be such a small world at times! Thanks for your interest in the upcoming “Freak Out.”
    See you around –

    • Hey Sarah! I look forward to learning more about that whole event, and spreading the word. Can’t wait. So good to meet you too! Thanks for stopping to say hello!

      • Sarah

        Would you mind if I link your blogs to mine? I have, though I don’t post very often enough anymore. Thanks.

  2. I remember reading this a few years ago when I was doing research on Bethlehem Steel and was totally blown away by it. It’s such a fantastic essay and a gorgeous tattoo. Thank you for bringing it to my attention again!

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