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Latrinalia

Monday, 1 September, 2014

Photos by Julia Milone and Kevin Hawkins and Stewart Webb

I set out to write this article with intent to expose the great wealth of wisdom, humour and obscenity scribbled inside toilet cubicles throughout the University of Melbourne. I’d hoped to find a Parkville Pablo Neruda spraying exquisite poetry alongside the ceramic bowls, or a campus Confucious, offering brief streaks of illumination upon grimey walls. I thought I would be plunging head first—Renton-from-Trainspotting style—into the darkest recesses this institution has to offer.

Instead, I found hospital sterility. The cubicles were whitewashed, with freshly painted stalls and new fittings. Unbroken and unadorned toilet roll holders remained securely fastened to walls. The unfailingly shiny mirrors reflected a slightly disappointed Farrago writer, rather than the primal urges or base desires of delinquent students. The cupboards were, for the most part, bare.

This is a far cry from the high water mark for toilet art, the ‘90s, when walls sagged with the weight of alternate layers of ink and Wite-Out, and teenagers drew portraits of Kurt Cobain using their own blood and excrement.

Latrinalia—the official word for toilet grafitti—is today a dying art form. Since those golden years, the oceans of ink and art have shrunk to puddles, soaked up by the cloths weighed heavy with bleach and wielded by campus janitors.

The Parkville campus is no exception. If there is any sort of latrinalia movement at uni, those involved are taking an extremely minimalist approach.

And what does appear is quickly wiped out. The Baillieu Library’s basement bathrooms had a small but interesting collection of toilet literature (ToiLit?) prior to the semester break, but these too were casualties in this war on art.

This decline however is not the sole responsibility of over-zealous staff and their chemical warfare. Latrinalia has also been slowly strangled by a mass of broadband cables. You need only to scroll below any video uploaded to YouTube to find the vitriol and diarrhoea—here verbal—once reserved for toilet stall walls. Online comment sections are now the go-to for unhinged rants, outrageous insults and Nazi comparisons.

Rare examples of drug use and masturbation aside, the use of public bathrooms has largely been reduced to their primary, bowel expunging function. The good work of the ‘90s renaissance artists has come to nothing.

Or rather, almost nothing. For all the disappointment of a thousand virgin walls, I was granted some reward for my persistence. With over 120 bathrooms, the Parkville campus still provides the odd glimpse into the subcultures and subconscious of our university.

For legal reasons I was restricted to male bathrooms, and in the interests of decency I will only report the more intelligent offerings.

Just kidding! There were cocks. Red biro cocks, black permanent marker cocks, pastel crayon cocks. Sometimes two or three per cubicle. There were also crude representations of vaginas, of course, and a glory hole or two for good measure (a small hole in a bathroom wall is an opportunity for 3D obscenity too great to resist it seems).

Promises of promiscuity, accompanied by the phone numbers of various males, females and family members were offered in several locales, and levels two and four of the Redmond Barry building are apparently dogging hotspots from midday on Fridays (attend or avoid at your discretion).

Appropriately, the Redmond Barry building is not only the nominated home of public sexual encounters at the University of Melbourne, but also the psychology department. The renowned entomologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey studied toilet graffiti in the 1950s and unsurprisingly reported that the scribblings were ‘uninhibited expressions of sexual desires’, a strikingly Freudian observation.

Alan Dundes, who coined the phrase ‘Latrinalia’, achieved even greater penetration of Freudian territory (as I just did in this sentence). After visiting and loitering inside just enough bathrooms in California to arouse his suspicions, Dundes theorised that we have strong “infantile desires to play with faeces” which, when countered by social norms, manifests itself in the practice of toilet graffiti.

Between the masses of empty space, sporadic depictions of genitalia, and various scribblings that could be filed under ‘lewd’, I found small patches of political (un)science.

A fiercely determined Macedonian patriot has extolled the virtues of the former empire and Balkan nation in several cubicles. If the responses are anything to go by, few readers are convinced. ‘Fuck off, nobody cares’ and ‘Serbia is better’ were just two of several rebuttals.

I may not have found his suppository of wisdom, but I did come across some lukewarm support for the Prime Minister. ‘I actually like Tony Abbott,’ read one confession (I’m not sure how Gina Rinehart snuck into the gents) while another said what no one was thinking; ‘I agree with the budget’.

These few political tidbits were too little, too late though, and a study of University of Melbourne’s latrinalia leaves a lot to be desired (playing with faeces if we are to believe Dundes). Like a hundred blank canvases the toilet stalls of our great institution lie dormant, yearning for us to make an unlikely return to the golden days of the ‘90s.