Where Has All the Graffiti Gone?

I'll never forget one short declarative sentence I saw that has grown more meaningful to me over the years."I'm tired," it announced to anyone passing before the community college restroom wall upon which it was written, and the several bubbles of "Me, too" tethered to it concurred.Simple but evocative, this statement could be any woman's epitaph, with the life of its author easily accessible in intimate detail to other women.I'll wager the author of this piece of graffiti was an older student juggling school, a job, a family. I read it while teaching part-time at a local community college, and it prompted me to mull over the life stories of the older women in my classes who were attending college for the first time, quite a number of whom, I'd learned from their essays, were contending with abusive or errant husbands, ailing parents and teenagers who were suffering from customary angst and then some.Thinking of this anonymous woman and the personally revealing and erudite grafitti I often encountered as a student during the early '80s, I decided to search the stalls of today's campuses to see what I would see.What I found, ironically, was much less than I expected."If you had a million years to do it in," complains Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, "you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world."Perhaps that was the case when J.D. Salinger published his famous novel some 45 years ago, and maybe it was true during the era of campus unrest in the '60s and '70s, but it's a different story now, at least when it comes to college bathrooms.Latrinalia, or bathroom graffti, once proliferated, inspiring a good amount of vigorous research by social scientists -- some referring to themselves as "graffitiologists" -- particularly from the late '60s through the late '70s. In their books, they analyzed the whys of latrinalia, relying heavily on Freud and Kinsey to explain that repressed urges, especially sexual, need to find an outlet, and the more shocking the graffiti, the more "salubrious and good for the psyche," according to Robert Reisner's book, Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing.Ernest Abel and Barbara Buckley, in their book The Handwriting on the Wall, agreed, postulating that "the combination of antisocial thought, antisocial language to express it, and antisocial disfigurement of someone else's property enables the graffitist to discharge ... deep-seated emotions he may be harboring and thus helps him regain his composure."Though it seemed to find a special currency in the '60s and '70s, latrinalia "goes back thousands of years," explains CSU Chico professor Sarah Newton, who teaches English and American Studies, including a class in folklore."It was found in the latrines of Pompeii," said Newton. "It's a very old form of folk expression."Though the term "latrinalia" was coined in 1966 by Dr. Alan Dundes of UC Berkeley, the first scholar to study latrinalia was Allen Walker Read, a professor at Columbia who, in the late '20s, began a semantic analysis of latrinalia which, at that time, appeared almost exclusively in men's bathrooms.Sex, Books and PoliticsAlthough I can't speak to the graffiti in men's bathrooms, men friends tell me it can be pretty rough. CSU, Sacramento sociology professor Tom Kando describes it as "sexist, very obscene, violent, racist.""There's an immense amount of homophobic stuff," he said. "Occasionally I'll find something erudite, folk poetry. But for the most part it's gruff, vulgar -- not that different from male culture in America."As a student at Berkeley in the early '80s, I saw a good deal of latrinalia, with more political discussions than proclamations of love, though there were certainly these. But the most compelling reads were confessional, especially about relationships. No questions were considered rhetorical; no musings, solitary. My recollections of women's bathroom graffiti from this time jibe with Newton's."In the old days," she remembers, "graffiti tended to be about relationships and advice. Women responded with fairly candid give and take."While the political discussions I read at Berkeley were intense, if not at times arcane -- some about places I'd never heard of -- the most memorable piece of women's latrinalia I recall was a poignant admission from a 20-year-old having an affair with a married man twice her age. On the stall orbiting her confession, many had written replies, some sympathetic and others sarcastic, the latter underlined and barbed with exclamation marks, attesting to the girl's stupidity. But off to one side of these reposed a very lengthy answer in elegant penmanship. The writer questioned the girl gently but probingly and counseled her to pay attention to her feelings. Whoever this writer was, she was older than the girl -- old enough to know it would be a long time before this girl, still unformed and out to please, stood up for herself.A girlfriend who attended Sac State at about this time told me her favorite piece of bathroom graffiti was an earnest discussion of Jane Austen that spanned several weeks. She and several friends checked faithfully for the latest installment, their conversations about it spilling over into the classroom and into professors' office hours. As the discussion hinged on Austen's viewpoint of women and marriage, the responses addressed not only Austen's novels but the broader subject of marriage, with some writers chiming in with their personal experiences of the institution.Another conversation, a debate about whether the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's sonnets was really a man or a woman, quickly snowballed into an examination of what it meant to be male or female, with both philosophical and practical treatment of the subject.There were other extended discussions about literature as well as about politics -- President Reagan's near -- assassination, for example. Another friend, going to school several years later, found the same stalls in Douglass Hall devoted almost entirely to lesbian graffiti, celebratory and graphic, which spawned equally celebratory and graphic agreement from some writers or rebukes from others, admonishments from "Yuck!" to "If you love her, show more respect for your partner."When I moved on to UC Davis, there was also a lot of graffiti -- again, mostly political: For a while, the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to pass was an especially hot topic. When I asked a friend who went to Davis with me for her recollection of its graffiti, she recalled the political discussions and ongoing conversations about relationships but singled out quick-witted little poems as her favorite.At that time, inspired by a "wolf wall" -- a place where women list for each other the names of local -- I had seen at Berkeley, I started one at Davis. I launched it with the name of a professor; other contributors also added students' names or singled out fraternity houses, and a few, in sidebars, confided that they had been molested as children. Writers not contributing names offered advice to the victims, some advocating therapy while others favored a more straightforward, Old Testament approach to evildoers.When I returned to Davis recently to check for graffiti, I discovered that the wolf wall bathroom, like almost all the bathrooms I visited, was barren of any writing except the occasional flyer advertising a diet plan. In the English Department bathroom in Voorhies Hall, a sign fussed at the occupants to wash their hands.Examining many of the women's bathrooms at Sac State and Chico State, I was surprised there was virtually no graffiti. No passionate outbursts here, either. Neutered of these, the bathrooms could have been those of any government or corporate office.I got so used to seeing bare walls and stalls at Chico State that I was startled when I did find a piece of graffiti. It wheeled out the big guns on its audience. "Get a grip," it boomed. "Do you know what your goals are?" Other than that, I now know Sarah loves Ryan.Of the few pieces I found at Davis, one contributor groaned about being bored, and another deplored the lack of graffiti. At Sac State I found found a bit more: a couple of obscenities, a quotation from John Keats (compliments of Douglass Hall) and a sedate lesbian love equation, one name written on either side of a kittenish heart. Underneath this was the suggestion from another writer that what they really needed were males.Where Has All the Graffiti Gone?Where has all the bathroom graffiti gone? I admit I've been out of the college loop: My teaching stint at community colleges ended several years ago. At these campuses, there was considerably less graffiti than what I had grown used to at the universities, and it was almost entirely quick-hit graffiti of only a phrase or a sentence: love equations, obscenities, name-calling, a pronouncement of the handsomest actor or rock star or student.One colleague from junior college who taught for 33 years remembered there being considerably more graffiti in the bathrooms of the '60s and '70s than in those of the '90s. Before felt tip pens came on the market, she recollected, graffiti was often scratched in, leaving bathrooms scarred by the volatility of the times: "Make love, not war," "Black power," "Power to the people," peace signs and drawings of upraised fists predominated.By the time she retired a few years ago, what graffiti did appear had slowed to a sprinkling of omnipresent love equations and quick hits with the words "fuck" and "shit" in them.Girlfriends of mine who teach at the university and community college levels tell me that there's much less graffiti going up and that custodians seem more diligent about removing or painting over what does appear. When I asked them to take an informal poll of their classes about bathroom graffiti, my friends reported back that while some knew of graffiti in terms of couples' names and drawings of hearts (in men's bathrooms, less sentimental commemorations), all of their students were unfamiliar with latrinalia as the kind of involved discourse we ourselves had known in college, and some students shuddered, appalled by graffiti writing, associating it solely with gang bangers.In a recent Harper's Magazine article, contributing editor and University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses what he calls the "peculiar state" of his students and college students in general."Their presences tend to be very light; they almost never change the temperature of the room," he reflects.He acknowledges that they are "decent." "They are potent believers in equality. They help out at the soup kitchen ... And in their commitment to fairness they are discerning; there you see them at their intellectual best," praises Edmundson.He notes, however, "That what they will not generally do ... is indict the current system. They won't talk about how the exigencies of capitalism lead to a reserve army of the unemployed and nearly inevitable misery."Edmundson theorizes that "university culture, like American culture writ large, is ... more devoted to consumption and entertainment," and that "for someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview."Students nowadays "have imbibed their sense of self from consumer culture in general and from the tube in particular," he explains. "The TV medium is inhospitable to inspiration, improvisation, failures, slip-ups. All must run perfectly. Most of my students seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves. The specter of the uncool creates a subtle tyranny."What's the fallout from this? According to Edmundson, as a student, "you're inhibited, except on ordained occasions, from showing emotion, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. You're made to feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code will get you genially ostracized.""This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm," Edmundson charges, where students find themselves in an environment where it just won't do to be seen as "too loud, too brash."Nothing but 'NetPerhaps it's true that latrinalia reached its zenith in the '60s and '70s because of the turbulence then, and now that we live in a more complacent age there is less desire to rage or engage.But it's also true that my friends and I went to college before the advent of cellular phones and the Internet, each of these providing a greater measure of immediacy and, in the case of the latter, anonymity. And if the need is not only to vent in conversations -- in chatrooms, for example -- but to memorialize, then cyberspace can offer that too.To check my theory, I took a quick spin on the Information Superhighway. I hit on The Ladies Room almost immediately. Posted on this site is graffiti culled from women's bathroom walls as well as original material added by those -- including men -- visiting the Web site."I think, therefore I'm single," crows one contributor.Another begs, "Dip me in honey and feed me to the lesbians."One, allegedly a man, quips, "Few women admit their age. Few men act theirs.""I sometimes feel alone and insignificant," another writer sighs, "especially when people turn out the light while I'm still in the bathroom."Wolf walls have gone online as well. A Web site called Boys That Have Done You Wrong lists "boys that deserve to be shamed." The introduction explains, "Consider it a bathroom stall... a way to exorcise your bitterness.""To add a hated name, send me the name," the instructions advise, "and if you wish to have an explanation link, tell me what happened."Below the list of names, a warning states, "There are other boys I know that are pushing their way onto this list... watch it... "For those with a heartful of vengeance, there exists the promise of justice after all: if not in this world, in cyberspace.Takin' It to the StreetsI have to confess, though, that the most unforgettable graffiti I have ever seen was not latrinalia. At Berkeley, I would come across messages painted on sidewalks announcing that a woman had been raped at that spot, giving the date and time. Could there be a more haunting reminder of my own vulnerability?"Here be dragons," other women were warning me.And occasionally on the bulletin boards in the hallways of classroom buildings I'd find posted virulently misogynist and obscene "poetry," with the fraternity responsible for its authorship proud enough to display its name at the bottom. When I would go to class, my thoughts would stray: Was one of the authors sitting in the room with me?And that's why, ultimately, I think, there's something too remote and therefore unsatisfying about cyber graffiti.The women on the Internet logging on to the Girls Kick Ass page? I'd rather they were kicking ass on a more temporal plane, or at least writing about it there.


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