The Writing on the Wall: Bathroom Graffiti as a Public Art Form

Lightsey Darst, embarked on a project of secret poetry, explores latrines around the city in search of masters of the language.

In Strozier Library the bathrooms squeeze onto half-floors, little doors opening off the landings of the narrow stairwells. The bathrooms are galleys, two stalls and then a poorly renovated handicapped-accessible stall, which ignores how difficult it would be to maneuver a wheelchair through the narrow doorway and twisted entrance. Altogether the bathrooms feel out-of-the-way, Alice in Wonderland, open me—and then, when you’ve shut the stall door and you’re all by yourself, you can read years of graffiti. The graffiti covers all the usual topics, but the library stalls emphasize choices, what kind of woman to be: abortion, religion, feminism spawn debates that rage around the paper dispenser and tampon box. Sitting there, I feel in the presence of older women, the way I will years later in a plush, candle-laden apartment in Uptown, listening to hours of wine-addled wisdom. I don’t agree with everything the graffiti says, but the words have weight, the weight of experience and anonymity. Then, too, I feel a luxury I don’t have in my classes at the university: not needing to respond or defend my own opinion. I can just listen.

Graffiti: writing in public places. Scratched, painted, sprayed, words, figures. Divided into tagging and discourse: the latter divided into wit (“love is for fools / fools are for love / love is for suckers / suck is for lovers”), political comment, sexual comment, and the traditional (“Monty was here”). Graffiti, an undesirable element, to be overpainted, scraped from the walls, eliminated in the interests of public cleanliness; plague of the public restroom. Vandalism, misdemeanor; weapons of choice, black sharpie, ball-point pen. “Fuck all bitches.”

In this city you could walk all day and not talk to anyone. People will bump into you in line at the grocery store, but no one will talk to or look at you. On a warm day it’s still cold, and everyone saves breath for hand-warming.
But the walls talk. “I’d like to meet you.”

I have a poem in my pocket and I’m trying to figure out where to put it. Surfaces gleam; an ad on the back of the stall door smiles. Everything tilts, slants, resists the casual balance of paper. At last, feeling devilish, I leave the poem on the shelf where women rest their purses while washing their hands. Whoever’s next, she won’t be able to miss it.
I’m distributing these poems in public bathrooms. I imagine people reading them around the city, totally separate from their author, with their own authority; I imagine people stepping into the poems, interpreting and inhabiting their lines. The poems describe a city (though not this one), and have at once a public focus (history, architecture) and an intimate address—voila, the public bathroom. Or so goes my p.r. I’m also doing this because I’ve been submitting poems to journals for a while, and I conceive of this city distribution as a low-stress method, an out-of-town tryout. I won’t care as much about these lost and found poems, these anonymous scripts.

At the same time, inspired by that long-ago college bathroom, I’m looking for bathroom graffiti in Minneapolis.
I visit a big store. Metal stall walls, scratchless. Signs advise us not to bring “unpaid merchandise” into the bathroom: that un-English construction would still the hand of any would-be graffitist. Worse, I’ve forgotten to take a poem to hide. I’m depressed. I take my paid merchandise and hurry out.

This greasy spoon seems likely. The waiter slings us a plate before rushing off to his next table. There’s no granola here and the coffee tastes like tin: yes. But then the bathroom’s stenciled with some idiotic slogan: “Bad girls don’t have time to do the dishes,” maybe, or “Bad girls don’t have the strength to get out of bed”—my eyes have already glazed over by the time I read “Bad girls” in that Mary Engelbreit-lite stencil. This isn’t the only outhouse where official graffiti acts as a prophylactic against unofficial scrawl: a local restaurant features, in tag-like script, a message against tagging. “Peace out,” the message concludes. Peace out? Yes: no one’s found the message worth corrupting.

I hang out in a wine bar, relaxing in a sunny front window. The martini options, though I’m drinking wine, put my soul at ease: people like me are here. But in the back a dull maze of tile leads to a faceless restroom that belongs to no one. I could be anywhere, nowhere. The only words are on the ads.

Does anyone still write graffiti in public restrooms? Well, try this: “Eat more people”—“and let’s start with you”; “capitalism must turn down the suck”; “read more bitchin”—“breed more lichen”; “spermatozoon” rendered in Basquiat-esque script. A graffiti hotspot, a co-op café where the walls never get cleaned and everyone leaves an opinion or a desire. John Kerry gets slammed as a war criminal on one wall, while on another activists argue about the ethics of distracting people from local issues by luring them to environmental protests in Oregon. It’s a bulletin board for the community—politics, gossip, band names, little messages (“great to be back”). As I’m standing here, copying down all this graffiti, I’m heartened by the need to talk that this wall represents, and by the uncritical, democratic inclusion of every voice. Right now, I see graffiti as hope: people generous enough to speak to other people, even in our cold climate. Intimate, anonymous, accepting, it’s a necessary space, a place to say anything, to say what can’t be said anywhere else.

Back to the poems. I’m having a hard time remembering to carry these little sheets of paper with me. Maybe it’s not that I don’t remember. Maybe I don’t want to do it. Still, I’m getting better at it. I give a poem to a friend; she sticks it in the corner of an advertisement. “You want to put it where it won’t get thrown away,” she says. Her technique is a revelation: from then on I put the poems where they’ll be found but not cleaned away. I also decide that bathroom placement is not absolutely critical; wherever I find a likely public space, I’ll leave a poem.

I hit the co-ops. I drop two poems in utterly immaculate bathrooms. Responsible co-op-shoppers seem to be diverted from graffiti by the activity of writing neat comment cards for the billboard between the bathrooms. One poem I prop up behind the faucets, the other I hide in the tampon dispenser, a corner poking out. Will an employee throw them away? Will customers find and neglect them as crackpot ranting, nothing to do with the healthy lifestyle promoted by the co-op? I have low hopes.

Perhaps you’ve already spotted the problem with the co-op café’s graffiti. I said it’s democratic but it’s not; it’s more communist than democratic; a narrow demographic leaves these messages, and there’s also a sense of conformity, that whoever goes into the bathroom had better be prepared with something politically or culturally appropriate. A lot of the messages read like ads: where and what to protest, band names, website addresses, pasted-in factoids. The graffiti lacks risk. Whoever wrote “capitalism must turn down the suck” didn’t write it where capitalists will find it.

I wander through downtown, along Nicollet Mall. It’s a rainy day and I get into the skyway system like a rat and stroll from one office building to another. Restrooms aren’t marked on maps and signs are tiny. Even going to look is a kind of theft. When I find a restroom, I’m faced with black laminate walls. Tags that must have taken a lot of effort, considering the surface, have been obliterated. In another building the room is locked.

These impossible bathrooms reduce the bodily function to utter silence. When you are by yourself, you do not exist; you must buy to exist; and then you don’t live in an aging, excreting, needy body, but in the sterile air of a storefront window. You were never here, and neither was anyone else.

When I began this project, I specifically excluded tagging from my graffiti search. Design, color, typography: it’s a visual artist’s, not a writer’s, work. And it’s been written about already, and it’s surrounded by a whole tagging culture I know nothing about. But the more I look, the more I think tagging, in its lowest, most reduced form—a name or symbol—is a sign of desperation. These surfaces are so resistant that a message would be impossible. What happens when people are so powerless, so speechless, that it’s a victory for them just to scratch their names into a wall?

In the meantime, I’m striking out on graffiti. Where is it? I get scientific: where’s the demographic who writes graffiti? I’ve been in enough department store bathrooms to know that ladies in nice shoes don’t scribble on walls, but then the homeless people downtown don’t get the chance to scribble (and some probably can’t). Young, educated, active people are my best bet, but I don’t want to collect only their thoughts. I want to find a place where people of different classes and beliefs share the wall. For that reason I’ve been avoiding the university, even though I know it’ll be rich in graffiti.

Still, I go there. The semester’s over and no one’s in the halls as I trip from one bathroom to another; by the time I get to the third floor, which I remember as a hothouse of debate about the pleasures and pains of menstruation, I realize that the building’s been cleaned since I left. I can make out “what do we have here? 1000 Dear Abbys?”—evidence of the rich spread of the year before.

With my meter ticking, I decide to visit a building which I know holds large lecture halls. Underclassmen and uncommitted students are more likely to write on walls, I theorize, and maybe this building’s on a different cleaning schedule. Success: the first stall reads, “Smile!” There’s “toilet tennis”: “look left” on one wall, “look right” on the other. “I want to kiss a girl” yells one, and “do it!” is written underneath. “I am ready for some good, hot summer lovin,” says one diarist. “Now all I need is a man.” So far, it’s run-of-the-mill, corn-fed, simple-minded; but another wall holds a discussion about raising the minimum wage. “How can anyone live on $800 a month?” “Because, nimrod,” begins a reply. “And some can’t live on $80,000 a month,” someone has added. “LOSERS,” adds another.

I realize there’s been a flaw in my method. I’ve visited women’s and unisex rooms, but no men’s rooms. So I listen at the door to the men’s room, and, hearing nothing, slip inside. I never knew what I was missing: the walls are covered. All the usual categories are here—wit: “how long was your shit?” asks one, with space for votes for one, two, three, four, and five plus minutes, while another mathematically proves that women are evil; politics: “Who would Bin Laden vote for?” and “Christians suck”—but everything is tinged with sex. “Denver Nuggets = whiny faggot pussies”; “liberals are gay!!”; “conservatives are hermaphrodite bastards”. One gives the recipe for a “tasty treat,” on which another comments, “It felt like a jello enema.” Someone has altered “Bush is the greatest President of all time” to read “Bush is the greatest faggot to lick my balls”. It’s offensive, but also goofy, mixed-up (a liberal homophobe with homoerotic fantasies?), and linguistically inventive. There’s a lot of childish playfulness here: writers modify each other’s graffiti to say the opposite of what it originally meant; “I [heart] pot” becomes “I [heart] potholders” and “I [heart] potatoes”. The symbol of the men’s room might be the busty female torso to which someone has added a large penis and the word “Yummy”.

In the “public restroom,” that marvelous euphemism, we perform our intimate function in public, right where countless others will perform, have performed, are performing the same act. We’re vulnerable here and what we want most is to get through this without being too conscious of others and without them being too conscious of us. A public restroom should be immaculate, should have no smell, and should be either completely empty or moderately busy. We want to get out with our anonymity intact.

Because of that vulnerability and anonymity, the public restroom offers a unique opportunity for written communication. We can read or write anything we want; we can be clever, sacrilegious, opinionated, sexy, angry. People who will never talk can freely exchange thoughts. And graffiti also reconnects us to our bodies: look what you’re doing, it says. It undercuts the posh touchless sink and the tasteful tampon receptacle. You’re in a body, you’re dirty, you’re just like me.

In the Metrodome restroom, where I’m expecting a trove of gossip and coarse words, I find rows of immaculate stalls. I should have known: fake grass, fake sky, fake jakes. A ballpark is supposed to be a place for holiday, for unfettered discourse, for ladies to throw peanut shells, but in the Metrodome experience is tightly controlled: voices tell us where to look and what to do, screens dazzle us with bright colors. The crowd sways between stimuli, too distracted to originate anything. The place is a mass panic attack. If I leave a poem, will anyone have the energy to read it?

I think hard before I tuck a poem into the tampon machine at my workplace; I realize that I care about these sheets of paper. I thought that with wider distribution I would care less, but the opposite turns out to be true. I want to leave the poems where they’ll be found and read, not where they’ll be thrown away, laughed at, unappreciated. But this is what my project is all about: work in the real world. My writing usually appears in literary journals, where only other writers see it, in the context of other writing. But this distribution project throws the work into the context of reality. Will anyone give it a chance? I’m afraid for my little poems.

Downtown again, I notice that most of our public space is devoted to ads. Giant billboards loom, little ads zoom by on cars, a bench-back touts local realtors. Buses have sold their sides and bus shelters have sold their walls, so worn-out black women wait with antsy kids in front of skinny models in Bebe dresses and vacant smiles; we live amid the ads, silenced or made to speak only in their language.
Graffiti offers a chance to subvert this. We can talk about what we really want, what we think, and we can talk directly to people who have the time (suddenly) to listen. We can talk across the conventional barriers that separate us, our race, class, income.

Time out. I take a break, go to New York City. At the Whitney the bathroom has been turned into an installation called “We’re All in This Together” (by Jim O’Rourke), featuring purple fluorescent light and a dripping, gossiping soundtrack. I can’t tell how much of the unpleasantness of the bathroom is the installation—the puddle on the sink, the loose pink-lit paper on the floor? But I don’t see patrons marveling and cruising the angles the way they will in the floors above; everyone wants to get out. It’s so obvious, really, and so awful, and anyway this is New York, where bathroom art’s been done, where every bar catbox has a poem and a candle and a pressed tin wall. And the public bathroom isn’t such a liminal zone here: you can talk to strangers in the street, make out in Central Park with a cast of thousands, walk your personal breed of insanity down Broadway in the middle of the day. The private is always public. Who cares?

I’m here for a stationery show. The booths are filled with journals, cards, and scrapbooking supplies that allow people to express themselves in certain prepackaged ways. Define your day by one of seven stickers. Send your granny a card that tells her just what the company thinks you should think about her. Keep your private diary in a pink leather cover with a motto proclaiming your bad girl beatitude. Even something so inoffensive as decorative stationery circumscribes speech: embassy to your true love surrounded by American flags? outraged missive to your senator embedded in antique rose decals? Although we’re still in New York, I feel like I’m back where people don’t talk to each other. All around me, reps and buyers choose the packages they think their regional market will support, dividing us again and reaffirming the division with segregated greeting cards, hipster kits, and country kitsch. Whatever you want to say, you’ll end up saying it in some way they’ve already determined and budgeted for.

Riding the bus. News of a failed student blares in the paper scattered on the seats opposite: “Former Henry Standout Arrested.” I’ve no idea what it means, but scattered like that, like birds have been pecking through the paper for seed, it moves me, especially as we’re trundling up Chicago. On my return trip a young mother, nineteen or twenty, will be threatening the daughter she’s taken the time to name “Oceanne,” and I’ll be cradling the remains of a very expensive bottle of champagne in my bag. I’m having the thought you’re not supposed to have: is the work worthy of the world? I look at the poem I’m planning to leave in the space between the bus seat and the wall, and feel it falling apart, the syntax showing false emotion, the images strained and precious. If the former standout’s mother reads it, will it say anything to her? Hold it up to the world and it’s nothing. Still, I leave the poem.

I go to a local bar whose graffiti I remember fondly. It’s getting wet outside; I order a bloody mary from a bartender whose shirt reads, “Stop reading my shirt.” I open a magazine and poke at the olives that have sunk to the bottom of the glass. The man closest to me, noticing that I’m two chairs from him, says, “You’re assuming I don’t have two friends.” I smile faintly. “It’s a joke,” he says. “Ha,” I offer. I’ve come here looking for shithouse graffiti, but I don’t accept conversation from strangers. A contradiction? I don’t think so; part of graffiti is its absolute safety. It’s an address you don’t have to respond to. “I had to break up with my last girlfriend; I couldn’t stand the sight,” my friend without two friends says to the bartender, showing him a picture. The bartender shies away, laughing.

Eventually I’ve eaten all the olives and it’s time to visit the bathroom. With my notebook in hand, I open the door to a room freshly painted faint pink. (Flashback to middle school: the bathrooms were repainted a peptobismal pink that was supposed to discourage graffiti. The color discouraged everything. Flesh looked dead in the reflected light. Being thirteen felt worse than ever.) At first I despair. This is the bathroom where I saw “I hate bush” followed by “homophobic” followed by “George Bush, you idiot”; how could they paint over that? Then I see that graffiti on the door and paper towel holder has survived. “Why do girls write desperate pleas for men on the ladies bathroom wall?” complains one writer, but most of the graffiti I see has a woman-on-woman bent, from what I can make out through the unfamiliar slang. “I love tune pie,” proclaims one writer. “Tune pie tastes great!” “Fuck men I love women,” says another. There’s competition: “My bonch is better than your bonch.” “I think all women are bitches,” one says, and another responds, cautiously, “women are better than that.” There’s the triumph of self-esteem: “I love my tits!” The graffiti’s upbeat; obscene, but supportive; and about a forbidden topic: women’s appreciation of their own sexual bodies. We’re allowed to admire our legs, but where can we go to talk about our vaginas? Scrawled on the metal paper towel holder is the room’s sole sad message: “Why don’t they stop singing? it hurts me.”

Before I began copying down graffiti, in the uncertain shift from winter to spring, I found a poem in a portapotty by one of the lakes. You could read it while sitting there, uncomfortable, grossed out by the vault toilet and the absence of running water, slightly cold, legs shaky from running. The lake outside had gone unsteady with the changing weather: now melted, now refreezing, an unfriendly surface without a name. We were at an edge of some kind. The poem began “when will the white man rain end”. It was scrawled high up, uncapitalized, unpunctuated. The white sun lit it through the fiberglass wall.

I’m white, but I didn’t feel threatened. It was writing, after all, not a weapon. The “Lonnie Road girls” used to graffiti the girls’ locker rooms at my high school, and Lonnie Road was a place I would never go, but I could read what they had to say without fear. Writing is a hopeful act. Who wrote the poem? How many read it before it was erased?

When I began the distribution project I wanted to write “collect them all” at the bottom of each poem. I hoped I would create a scavenger hunt for people in the know, a conversation, curiosity. But now I have the desire not for one person to find all the poems but for each to be found by someone. At first I felt it as a weakness that the poems all take place in another city; now I think the other city acts as a metaphor, a city superimposed on ours, a mythology. And distributing the poems has ceased to be about me, a fun or mischievous thing I’m doing; it’s a necessary fulfillment of the urge I felt to write these poems in the first place.

What has not changed: the poems were never in my voice. I heard them coming from subway stations, churches, alleys, crooked houses. Now I hear them as they’re read by others, bemused or confused voices, or sudden bolts of sympathy. Those who read them will not (I hope) be able to separate the poem from the place they found it; in this way the poems return to their source, giving voice to the disparate elements of a city.

On the basement floor of a hippie coffee shop, I enter a dark, narrow unisex. “Peace, love, and fuck me.” “Ignore all information.” “. . . bitching with 10000’s of foreign languages. . .” I can’t tell who’s been here, what demographic. “There’s not enuff arm wrasslin’ in this town” and “elemental trip” must be the clever young people, the same ones who write all over the co-op café, but “the killin’ game” and “fuck the police” look different. This coffee shop’s at a busy intersection, near a notorious dive bar; all kinds of people must stumble through, not just soy latte drinkers. I feel I’ve hit the jackpot: tagging, talk, love and hate, all together. And there are loose, scattered comments, the kind I haven’t seen anywhere else: “was alone one day,” “written when I was hung over”. Nestled behind a pipe, one of my poems finds a home.

Let’s admit it: writing is an excretory act. You create it on the inside and you push it out. Any art is the same. Art doesn’t take place solely in the mind, but lives in the body, works through the body. And the artist’s body works just like anyone else’s, as the rich man’s body works like the poor man’s body, the white woman’s like the black woman’s.

It’s not just that art needs the body, either; the body needs art, some outlet, some way to communicate. What propels me to a poem cycle sends someone else to a bare wall with a red marker and someone else to a scrapbook from a kit. We are all together in this. Graffiti doesn’t pretend otherwise. Until we find a better way to communicate, to speak in public places, graffiti will be where we meet. Or it will be until all the walls are made of steel.

Author
Lightsey  Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer and critic based in Durham. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for both literature and dance criticism, as well as a Minnesota Book Award. Her books of poetry are Find the Girl and DANCE (2010 and 2013, both from Coffee House Press). Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, walkerart.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut. …   read more