The Writing on the Wall Stefene Russell Culture

local_cafe The Writing on the Wall

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 23 ~ April, 1999

I Am Omnicide: Shadows on a Bathroom Wall

“He who is lying and boastful, I look for near the shrine of Cloacina.” – Platus, “Curculio”

There is a pool hall in my neighborhood. In the men’s bathroom, there is a condom machine, and written on it in marker, right above the slot where the prophylactics are dispensed, is this:


At least that is what my friend Donavin tells me – I’ve never been brave enough to go in there. It’s a sad thing to be a female aficionado of bathroom graffiti. Sociologists say men’s lavatory-centered written expression is “more colorful and imaginative,” than women’s, a fact validated by my own experience. Many times I have looked around a girls’ room stall to find nothing written at all, or if I’m lucky, something dull (but always legible). The bathroom in the psychology building at the University of Utah, where I used to frequent, is an example. One day I got tired of no one writing on the walls. So I wrote “know thyself,” very faintly, in pencil, right above the toilet paper dispenser. Sure enough, the next day, someone had crossed out “know,” and had written “fuck.” At least the Shooting Star Tavern in Eden, Utah is an exception to this sad state of affairs. (They also serve amazing garlic burgers and have the head of the largest St. Bernard who ever lived mounted on the wall.) The ladies’ room is prolifically decorated with graffiti, right down to the stuff scribbled in black marker all over the toilet seat (“smell me”).

But The Shooting Star is an anomaly.

“Male toilet rooms had writing on almost all the walls,” reported a 1967 study on bathroom scribblings, “Graffiti as a Function of Building Utilization.” The men’s rooms studied had graffiti on the “Doors and cracks between tiles, on vertical and horizontal planes and were generally dirtier than female toilet rooms in the same buildings. The absence of graffiti and the greater evidence of smoking in female toilet rooms might reflect the need for phallic expression.” A man’s favorite metaphor for a penis is a pen; a woman’s is a cigarette. This is why chicks are such bad graffitiers. I guess it makes sense.

Even though I’m a chick, I’ve always preferred bathroom graffiti over cigarettes, especially since discovering it is a sub-study of folklore, officially known as latrinalia.” That particular term is a neologism coined by folklorist Alan Dundes in his essay, “Here I Sit: A Study of American Latrinalia.” (He needed an academic equivalent to “shithouse poetry.”) Not that Dundes was squeamish – he wouldn’t be studying latrinalia if that were the case. But Americans are squeamish. We have a dear love of the spic and span, at least until we get to the bathroom, pause to make sure that no one is around, and then scrabble around in our coat pocket or our shoulder bag for a pen to write something nasty on the wall (“those who write on shithouse walls…”). As Dundes points out, “one of the few places where dirt can be displayed and discussed in American culture is the bathroom, private and public.” As if to say: take that (fuck you!) Mister Clean! If I could get away with it, I would write nasty limericks on your pristine, shiny bald head.”

Actually, sociologists claim all graffiti (on bathroom tiles or subway cars) is an affirmation of one’s uniqueness and independence. Which also explains why Americans love to write on bathroom walls. Not only do we dig a bit of immortality, even if it’s something gross carved into the wall of an outhouse in the middle of nowhere, but we worship the figure of the bandit, the anti-hero. What secret delight it is to write something utterly vulgar on the wall, our hearts pounding, just waiting for the assistant manager of the gas station or restaurant to come in, or even some condemning codger who will chastise us for being juvenile, destructive, or both.

But latrinalia has been around for a long time. There must have been a part of the cave where Urrrhg and his spouse relieved themselves; if they were drawing little bison on the other walls of the cave, they probably wrote vulgar things on the wall in there. That’s just speculation, but I do know that there is an entire book devoted to graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii. When this graffiti is translated, it’s exactly the same thing we find on walls today. “Etternatiucus gives a great blow job.” “Fuck Claudius.” “Epicydilla is a slut.” Humans have always had a compulsion to put their mark on anything pristine, and we still do. (This is the case even when it’s pristine dirt – I’m sure you’ve seen a dusty window or a grimy car on which someone has written a plaintive “wash me!”)

The Romans even had a goddess who presided over public latrines and everything that was written inside of them. Her name was Cloacina, and she had her own shrine, right beside the system of sewers that drained the refuse of the city (the Cloaca Maxima). Ironically, she was also the Goddess of purification, and was honored on a Roman coin.

In Utah, where cleanliness, etiquette, and immortality are on a lot of people’s minds, the latrinalia is choice, at least in the men’s room. The deeper the repression, the greater the delight in defying it. While I would pay someone fifty dollars to collect what is written on the walls of the men’s rooms at BYU, as it stands, I must be content with what I hear from my male friends as they stumble back from there.

“You know,” my friend Richard told me recently as we sat in a local tavern, “the best thing I ever saw written on a bathroom wall was in this very establishment. It was about Billy Idol, but not really about Billy Idol.”

“Oh, yeah?” I asked, trying to hear him over all the Metallica that someone had programmed into the jukebox.

“Yeah. If you were a guy, I’d walk in there right now and show it to you. It’s on the door. Someone had written, `Billy Idol bites the big one,’ and then a few days later, another person crossed out `Billy Idol,’ and wrote `Everyone.’ And then a few days after that, someone had written, under this big mess of words, `some of the time,’ so that it finally said, `Everyone bites the big one some of the time.’ I thought that was so true.”

And indeed it is, for even a year later, no one has added to this bit of graffiti.

“I was in the little boy’s room a little while ago,” my boyfriend told me, after I sent him on a mission to collect latrinalia, “and I found some fancy latrine graffiti. It’s just so brilliantly ignorant I had to tell you about it. It read, `I AM OMNICIDE!!’ Freud would love it.”

Freud aside, anthropologists Bruner and Kelso agree that there are gender differences when it comes to latrinalia, but it has nothing to do with smoking. Also, they seem to have actually found bathrooms where women write on the walls.

“An inspection of the surface text,” they say, “reveals that male and female restroom graffiti differ in two major respects. The first is that women’s graffiti are more interactive and interpersonal; one woman will raise a question and others will provide a string of responses and serious replies. Men write about sexual conquests, sexual prowess and frequency of performance. Women’s graffiti are more conversational and deal with relationships; men’s are more individualistic and deal with isolated sex acts and organs.”

Aside from the Shooting Star, I never really see much of anything written in women’s restrooms, and I always look. I mean, there was the incident in the psych building, but that didn’t seem like much of a conversation. Maybe I should have come up with something less contrived.

My aunt wrote me a letter not so long ago, and told me about a dream she’d had the night before. It actually seems kind of prophetic to me, though that may be because I’ve been thinking about bathroom graffiti with a little too much vigor.

“There’s a woman with very blonde hair wearing overalls mopping a cement-walled prison block,” she wrote. “And there’s a line of stainless steel toilets lined up against the wall – five of them – which she’s just cleaned. There’s only one window, a celestory near the ceiling – oblong lengthwise – and the sky outside is gray. She’s mopping away and she says, `Please excuse me. I have to do this,’ and she climbs into the first toilet. `I haven’t had a shower in three days.’ First she is in with her knees doubled up, but then her legs get sucked down. I can see the water below and it’s not shitty or sewery – it’s sea water. Pretty soon she’s up to her neck in the crapper, and she starts singing, `Oh, I wonder wonder who – booboobooboo – who wrote the book of love?’ Then all these other women’s heads pop up out of the other toilets and they sing the harmony – the sky changes to blue through the high window and they sing in harmony again, `I can see clearly now/the rain has gone….’ What do you think that a Jungian would make of that, especially the refrain, `…it’s goin’ to be a bright, bright, sunshiny day!’ Huh?”

I think that dream came straight from Cloacina – never has the john (ruth) seemed so numinous. Maybe if women started carrying around a vibrant array of markers in their purses, they could write a book of love on the lavatory walls. Or if that sounds too ambitious, we could just think of it as an anachronistic version of chat rooms. We could write in lipstick and nail polish and eyeliner if we had to; we could draw some beautiful, illuminated texts, like nuns used to do. We could scribble pictures of our families and our cars and our little dreams of Cloacina, painted in magic marker and cosmetics and indelible laundry markers. Certainly, it’s a much better legacy to leave our descendants than a bunch of moms and grandmas with lung cancer and bad crow’s feet: micro-poems about being on the rag, what to do when he done you wrong, or even gardening tips. It’s time to snuff out our Virginia Slims, pick up our sharpie markers or our teal eyeliner pencils – and go a long way, baby.

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.