Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Writing on the Walls

Does bathroom graffiti say something about who we are?

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  On a recent Saturday night, a college student home for a long holiday weekend stands at the urinal of Huey’s Midtown answering nature’s call. His eyes drift away from the business at hand to the walls, and he starts to read. All around him are (vulgar) proclamations of love, political commentary (also vulgar), and exhortations to favorite sports teams (again, vulgar).

As the student finishes up, he zips, digs around in his pocket for a pen, and starts to etch his own words into the wall, running over his lines again and again so that they take to the slickly painted surface.

“Go Tide. F--k the Vols.”

On the face of it, what just happened was a harmless, minor act of vandalism. But increasingly the profane scrawls across our public walls are being seen to be more than surface deep. In 1973, Norman Mailer penned his famous essay “The Faith of Graffiti” in which he extolled the form as folk art, the admittedly crass expression of the collective hopes, desires, and fears of the underclass.

As if it were a rallying cry, that essay was followed by a sort of graffiti renaissance. Pushed on in part by the growing influence of rap culture, graffiti became mainstream and more acceptable. Artists such as Keith Haring and Basquiat found their graffiti-fueled works hanging on the walls of some of the nation’s most respected galleries. And cities such as Philadelphia have opened select city building walls to graffiti artists.

But while the more visually flamboyant graffiti artists were finding bigger canvases and bigger rewards, the common restroom-wall artisan still labored in anonymity, his work limited by what he could scribble in one trip to the toilet.

“Graffiti is a subversive kind of communication because it’s something you write in private and you have complete anonymity,” says Shelley Brown, a recent master’s recipient from the University of Memphis who wrote her thesis on restroom graffiti. “It really kind of defies study because you can’t ask people why they wrote what they wrote. But that’s the power of graffiti — you can have your say.”

Despite the inherent difficulties in studying graffiti, Brown tried.

“When I would go out to restaurants and bars I found women’s graffiti fascinating,” says Brown. “I was actually inspired by some of it. And I wanted to know if men wrote the same things.”

Brown was by no means the first academic to turn her attention toward the writing on the stalls. Her research cites 16 previously published studies on graffiti, many of which also focused on the differences between the men’s and women’s walls. But previous studies had usually focused on university restrooms. Brown took her research out into the field — the bars and restaurants of Memphis.

The 28-year-old sociology major spent months traveling around to some 32 Memphis-area bars with a photographer friend. The male photographer and Brown would run interference for each other as they ventured into the other sex’s turf. The photographer would shoot examples of restroom writings, and later Brown would catalog the examples by content and which restroom they were found in — men’s or women’s.

Huey’s, the P&H Cafe, the old Poplar Lounge, R.P. Tracks, and the Young Avenue Deli were among the best sources of graffiti. To her confoundment, Brown found many more examples of graffiti in women’s rooms than in men’s. On the face of it, this may seem unusual; most people consider graffiti an act of defacement and as such perhaps an act more readily associated with men. But other studies have also supported what Brown discovered, that graffiti is more often found in women’s restrooms than men’s. One 1976 study of graffiti in American high schools found that 88 percent of its samples were culled from the girls’ room.

But as Brown discovered, the explanation for the preponderance of women’s graffiti may lie behind the reason women take pen to wall in the first place, reasons that are far removed from men’s.

“For men the underlying motivation behind graffiti is machismo, bravado,” Brown says, “but for women it is more communicative.”

Women, Brown explains, use graffiti as a form of common expression, to communicate simple ideas to each other.

“Graffiti that communicated ideas and problems, that offered support through the use of humor, advice and inspirational statement, and poetry were the types of graffiti found to be more prevalent in female restrooms,” Brown writes.

By contrast, Brown found most men’s graffiti to be about power and status, and that such writings were frequently and disturbingly violent, as in these examples:

Kill for fun!

F--k society — all they want is your soul.

Male power flows from the barrel of his dick.

“When I tell men about this project their first reaction is, ‘How did you get into the men’s restroom?’” Brown says. “It’s as if there’s this false sense of security, that whatever they write in there is safe from women’s eyes. I mean it’s not like there’s a lock on the door. They’re usually a little embarrassed to have a women see some of the things written in there. It’s a little like looking into a part of their soul.”

Aside from obvious paeans to the joys of going to the restroom itself, something which was common to both men and women’s restrooms, Brown found few similarities between the men’s and women’s rooms. She divided the types of graffiti into four categories representing the type of message that was being communicated — Advice: “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” “Take your shoes off and get dirty — it’s a small price to pay of compassion!”; Inspiration: “Believe in yourself. You are beautiful.” “Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”; Expressions of Need: “For all the sad things of tongue and pen the saddest of all is this — what might have been.” “You claimed all this time that you would die for me. Why then are you surprised to hear your own eulogy?”; and Humor: “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks.” Did you know Martina Navratilova died? They found her face down in Rikki Lake.” SINGLE = Stay Intoxicated Nightly. Get Laid Everyday.” “It takes a mighty fine man to be better than no man at all.”

The men’s graffiti was placed into the same categories, though calling the “… barrel of the dick” message inspirational seems twisted and “Better to be dead and cool than alive and uncool” is dubious advice. In the women’s restrooms Brown found abundant examples of graffiti that, while rarely more eloquent, were frequently more positive than that found in men’s rooms. The men’s writings tended to be driven by ego — proudful boastings of sexual prowess and social status, “yielding few efforts at male bonding and generic communication.” The women, on the other hand, tended to use the restroom walls as a sort of community bulletin board.

Many of the examples of graffiti Brown collected are gone. The old Poplar Lounge is gone, the North End burned out, and at the P&H and Young Avenue someone thoughtlessly painted the bathroom walls. Nationwide, graffiti is coming under the gun as businesses and government unite to stamp it out. The anti-graffiti industry, hawking everything from special paint-resistant coatings to miracle cleaning solvents, is booming.

But they’re facing an uphill battle, for free speech still reigns in bathrooms across the country. For every crude remark painted over, another one will take its place. No one has yet found a way to completely silence a person alone in a stall with a pen.

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