The poetry of the bathroom (a.k.a the lavatory, the loo, dunny, closet, privy, urinal, latrine, washroom, little boy’s or little girl’ room, powder room, bogger, john, crapper, pissoir or water closet).
Granted it’s not always poetic; though it is sometimes in verse, covers a wide variety of topics and has endured throughout culture for a very long time. Below is a reference to latrinalia by Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial, c.38-104 AD), cited in Ancient Graffiti in Context. Clearly Martial didn’t consider the practice one of high literary culture, though his comments certainly acknowledge it as a well recognised form of literary culture in its own right.
Referring specifically to graffiti found in public restrooms (as opposed to that found on the walls of buildings and other public objects), the term was first coined by American folklorist Alan Dundes in 1966. A phenomenon quite different to other forms of graffiti, latrinalia is characterised by numerous forms that have stayed with us over time. Among these are the following varieties you might be familiar with:
‘X loves Y’ graffiti,
‘For a good time call ……’
‘Here I sit, broken hearted’… (can you complete this rhyme?)
‘So-and-so woz here ’96’
General insults and defamation directed at another person,
Overt and sometimes rhymed references to bodily functions (pertaining to the reasons one would frequent the powder room in the first place),
Sexuality, sexual acts, references to (and drawings of ) genitals,
References to popular culture and philosophies of life,
Satire and humour,
Use of objects particular to the surroundings,
And the list goes on…
Once a common feature of restrooms located throughout our most prestigious academic institutions, it has been argued that latrinalia is on the decline due to the regular cleansing of public toilets and vigorous campaigns against this long tradition of vandalism. Even so, it’s fairly safe to argue that men and women equipped with an idea and a sharpie (and perhaps a pint or two) will continue to share their thoughts in these very intimate yet public spaces.
Examples such as the above also display what we call ‘metafolklore’; folklore about folklore. Here, in verse, the author of the poem and the author of the response to it both reflect on the very nature of what was once referred to as “shithouse poetry“. Think about that term for a moment if you will.
Sociologist Pamela Leong, who conducted a study of latrinalia at her university, has argued that the phenomenon is very much related to sex and culture and is very much a gendered tradition.
While bathroom stalls are spaces of privacy, the graffiti is very much aimed at future occupants. And unlike most forms of written communication that appear in public spaces (books, newspapers, even graffiti on buildings), these images and messages are intended for the eyes of the same sex.
By comparing latrinalia in men and women’s toilets, she found that:
…philosophical and poetic graffiti dominated the graffiti of women’s bathrooms, followed by supportive graffiti and relationship-oriented graffiti. In sharp contrast to the insults that dominated the chain graffiti in men’s bathrooms, the response and replies in women’s bathrooms tended to be supportive of the original artist. Absent were insults.
Mens latrinalia on the other hand is allegedly all about insulting anyone who shows signs of weakness, displaying grand assertions of masculinity and (yep, you guessed it!) drawing pictures of the penis; a phenomenon that has long puzzled many women.
Essentially an act of vandalism, it’s also interesting to note that this study found that 70.8% of latrinalia collected was carried out by women. Go girls!
My partner hit the nail on the head this morning when he commented that “good toilet graffiti is the type that makes you turn your head in all directions just to read it”; indeed good latrinalia forces us to linger in a space that (generally speaking) isn’t a place we intentionally visit for the purpose of studying the minds of others. That is, unless you’re a fan of latrinalia. Or a folklorist.
Is there any good latrinalia in your life? Are you a lavatorial philosopher?
Please leave a comment!
I would also LOVE to document any photographs you might have for a future piece about contemporary toilet scribblings. Please keep this in mind the next time nature calls when you’re out and about.