Dear John

Why the toilet is hub of literary activity

By Naoko Asano

At the intersection of public and private space is that muddy area known as the public bathroom. This space accommodates the performance of a very private biological function but is also an open gathering place for strangers. Because of this weird convergence of public and private, public bathrooms are particularly well suited to a unique form of art: graffiti. It’s the stuff found scrawled all over the stall or elsewhere on bathroom walls — confessional rants, political diatribes, jokes, gibberish, doodles, phone numbers — and after a quick survey of the public bathrooms in cafés, restaurants and bars along the Danforth you can see how common this form of self-expression is. What distinguishes bathroom graffiti from the ordinary street variety is that its practitioners aren’t skilled artists who engage in high-risk vandalism, but rather they are regular folk who answer nature’s call anonymously. This — the notion of the toilet as a locus of secret self-expression — is what makes bathroom graffiti worth noticing.

Graffiti itself is an old practice

Take, for instance, the discovery of ancient wall writing in Pompeii. Modern street graffiti has been granted some form of artistic and economic legitimacy in recent times. Though not similarly validated, bathroom graffiti is a thriving form of cost-free communication. The bulk of it consists of spontaneous writing, a kind of self-expression that allows people to scribble down some tentative ideas on whatever subject interests them at that specific moment. It is uncensored and unexpected thought — part of the appeal of bathroom graffiti is discovering it in the most unusual places. In one restaurant on the Danforth, in a clean and well-appointed bathroom, there is a lengthy back-and-forth dialogue about what it means for a woman to marry. The reader, alone inside the stall, is left to wonder what inspired someone to contribute to this low-tech message board. Whether the words are pretentious or stupid, provocative or clever, people feel compelled to set them down in ink. Not to mention the thrill of transgression — the walls of a public bathroom offer a kind of protection that allows people to make their thoughts public without having to worry about being caught. It’s a kind of non-committal soapbox, taking private thoughts into the pubic realm without sacrificing the identity of the author.

Bathroom graffiti is a captivating form of art vandalism that hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. As a mode of public writing, it has occasionally been acknowledged as a source of fascination, if indirectly, by writers of fiction. John Cheever’s story “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin” uses bathroom graffiti as a way of discussing a character’s alienation from a society he’s been absent from for too long. The story’s protagonist returns to New York from Europe only to notice an unusual style of prose scribbled on the walls of several public bathrooms. He begins to suspect that this graffiti is evidence of a new style of writing, and his reaction to it drives the story forward. Stephen King likewise makes dramatic use of a character’s noticing of bathroom graffiti in his story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away.” Both stories show how taking graffiti seriously is seen as strange. The focus is not on the practice of writing bathroom graffiti, or on the morally problematic aspect of art-as-vandalism, but rather on the act of noticing this apparently perverse phenomenon. The particular pleasure in reading bathroom graffiti comes from a necessary dose of voyeurism. We are observing a stranger’s private thoughts in a place that, by its very intimate nature, gives the whole experience an almost absurd quality.

Experiencing bathroom graffiti

There are websites devoted to collecting the experience of bathroom graffiti, posting examples either in photographs or text-only versions. But the best way to appreciate bathroom graffiti is to see it for yourself. Like found art, contextualizing it is needed in order for it to really leave an impression. Recasting street art in a lavatory setting means that the visual impact is inevitably lessened. While the graffiti you see out in the open is often quite graphic and beautiful, the stuff you see in the stall consists mostly of graffiti in its most basic form: words.  And yet the special thrill of discovering one person’s funny observation, or being angered by another’s myopic worldview, comes from the authenticity of the experience and the access to private thoughts made anonymously public. A toilet stall provides an egalitarian platform — writing on the wall requires no special skill or authority, no costly supplies or painstaking preparation. The writers seek no recognition, and the point isn’t for them to mean anything, to intend anything, but rather simply to act, impulsively, to scribble something. It’s what people have been doing since they learned to hold a pen — using language to make a record of experience.

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