In Defence of the Art of the Bathroom


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Five (2022). 

In the last cubicle of the Baillieu Level 3 women's bathrooms, you might spot a tiny, vandalised word-a mark upon a happy-green, University-endorsed graphic. On the toilet door, a poster sings of the University's commitment to alleviating climate change: "energy usage has reduced by 23% since 2006", it proclaims, before asking readers if they have any suggestions for further sustainable actions to undertake. "Divest". Written in black ink and capital letters. Simple, understated. Imperfect and a little wobbly, but surprisingly powerful. One word carries the weight of the University's inaction-its widely-reported unwillingness to halt the funnelling of money to fossil fuel companies--scrawled in permanent marker onto its property.

Bathroom vandalism has long formed a counter-cultural response to so-called public space. Armed with a permanent marker and the veil of anonymity, the bathroom graffiti artist appropriates the surface of a venue in a direct, enduring manner, an act which is illegal, though common. This draws to the surface the irony of public space: it doesn't really exist. Though we may be welcomed within the walls of institutions and venues, the space isn't really ours-it's just on loan to us by a private owner, who governs which actions are acceptable and which are unlawful. Though this may seem obvious at first glance, vandalism takes back the 'publicness' of this faux public space, asserting that any individual, any visitor, can make their mark on these walls. And what better place to do this undetected than within the safe, tiled, porcelain confines of the lavatory?

One of my first encounters with bathroom art was on account of a student at my school, who quoted (or actually misquoted) a phrase from the cult classic 1989 film Heathers onto the inner walls of a cubicle. The misquotation was far more interesting to me than the style (typical black marker slanted downwards against a cladded plastic wall) or message (that they love Heathers? Didn't we all?). In aim of making a counter-cultural, anti-institution statement, they actually misrepresented the source material. But it only made us discuss the graffiti more: who vandalises property just to do it incorrectly?

Once a surprising and gossip-inducing addition to the girls' bathroom at school, latrinalia-the art of the bathroom-was decisively normal amongst the venues of my late teens. Nowhere encapsulated the diversity and wit of restroom art better than the Retreat Hotel, Brunswick. Especially in its pre-pandemic iterations, the Retreat's toilet cubicles sported an array of drawings, doodles, quotations and suggestions. In the women's bathroom, acts of vandalism were tender messages of support. Visitors write to one another, almost as pen pals distanced by the near-absolute anonymity of the graffiti form, with messages of lovesickness and bad dates responded to with detailed and loving advice.

As a frequent visitor, old scrawls became familiar, and I came to notice how new pieces responded to existing ones. Over time, latrinalia becomes embedded within a building, layered and self-reflexive-and its absence is felt. The possibility of the painting-over thus marks the bathroom scribble's reckoning with its own mortality. Detailed messages, poems and crude drawings can be covered over quickly with a coat of paint, seldom tinted correctly, and never quite aligned with the original wall colour. Though the lavatory vandal never proposes that their work deserves an everlasting place on the toilet door, the paint-over still marks the loss of their creation. The act of covering latrinialia seems self-explanatory: the patrons of a school, bar or club have not held up their end of the deal; they have not interacted with this "public" space correctly through their vandalism, and so their rude doodles must be erased. But it seems much more complex than that. In some institutional settings, like schools, bathroom vandalism is almost universally considered inappropriate. But in Melbourne's clubs and bars, we could argue that bathroom graffiti gives a site its essence, being an intractable part of what it means to visit a venue.

Consider a case study: Colour Club in Carlton. Shortly after its 2019 opening, Colour was filled with scribbles. Then, emerging from a series of lockdowns, Colour's restrooms sported some fresh paint and a distinct lack of vandalism. Not for long, though: a recent visit confirmed that permanent marker has once again prevailed. This raises the question: what is the point of covering up latrinalia if the latrinalia-prone are likely to re-establish their dominance over the space? And, if the collective message through this is that Colour is better when it's vandalised,
what does this tell us about the linkage between some shabby scribbles and the very atmosphere of a venue?

Consider another case study: my rental property, a site of crayon vandalism during a party. Our anonymous culprit selected a vibrant green shade (symbolic of growth or perhaps environmental concerns prompted by our un-environmentally friendly toilet paper? Sorry-we're working on it) before taking to the pergola pole and the toilet door. The only clue: their name, 'Rock', which is about as comically nondescript as 'Shoe' or 'Bike'. It came off easily enough, and, as odd as it may sound, we were honoured to have created the kind of space where Rock cared enough to vandalise our property. For no one scribbles on a house or venue that they consider too lame to bother with. Unfortunately, Rock's profound assertion that they were present at our house-alongside the connotations of permanence embedded in their elected nomenclature--had to be wiped away.

What do we make of this? People love to scribble, maybe at the library or at Retreat or Colour, or maybe even in your home if they get drunk enough. Armed with a marker or crayon, they might inscribe their name in an act of self-affirmation, or something more poetic or witty (no offence, Rock). If we consider the graffiti of the bathroom to be art, albeit a lesser-loved type of art, I think it tells us something interesting about how and where we view artworks. It goes without saying, but the cubicle is a far cry from a gallery space like the NGV.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the breaking-down of the gap between the self and the art object in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin thought that modern art was becoming more radical, more accessible and more public due to its reproducibility, with the idea of the coveted "original" fading away. Though Benjamin spoke of film, photography and the printing press, we can apply the same ideas to the humble restroom scribble--particularly the markings or tags which are reproduced in many venue bathrooms. In the cubicle, drawings are not high art, they are quite literally the opposite, associated with our basest actions as human beings. The bathroom does not mediate our approach to art, but breaks down the perfect, white-walled, concrete-floored gallery space within which we have become accustomed to seeing artwork. The artist and the notion of their genius originality are absent. The cubicle is a radical, uncurated space where the experience of latrinalia meets us in our most private moments.

So, next time you visit a vandalised venue, consider the ways that art is present, unpretentious and honest. Consider how the act of writing can be radical or political in some way, in its cutting condemnation or its desire to offer honest, authentic advice. Consider how love is transferred through messages. And consider the silliness the senselessness of it all: maybe Rock will visit your bathroom sometime soon.

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