Latrinalia


Feb. 1, 2007, midnight | By Jeff Guo Ashley Lau | 13 years, 9 months ago

A glimpse into the art, scribblings and poetry of Blair's resident potty-mouths


There's a special sort of magic that happens in public bathrooms. (No, not poop. That ceased being magical in fourth grade.) Perhaps it's the dank, fetid air, the flickering fluorescent lights, or the sense of anonymous camaraderie. Whatever the reason, wherever the bathroom, something about the toilet setting prompts individuals to relieve their thoughts onto the stalls and walls.

It's an art form that shouldn't exist in the first place. For building services, the process of removing bathroom graffiti is an arduous - and continuous - process involving daily scrubbings, spray-downs with expensive, noxious graffiti removers and, occasionally, a heavy-duty blasting with the portable sander. All this, says Building Services Manager Yakubu Agbonselobho, is needed just to stem the daily tide of bathroom graffiti.

Alan Dundes, a professor of folklore at the University of California Berkeley, coined the term "latrinalia" in 1966 as an academic way to describe bathroom graffiti. His paper, "Here I Sit - A Study of American Latrinalia" was one of the first to treat bathroom scrawlings as barometers of public attitude. Dundes appreciated the honesty that sitting on the ivory throne can elicit. "One of the few places where dirt can be displayed and discussed in American culture is the bathroom, private and public," he writes. Thanks in part to Dundes's work, latrinalia is now a fixture in studies of graffiti.

But what do these illicit doodles reveal about the Blair population? A critical survey of student bathrooms reveals that our potty-thoughts are equal parts lewd, wry and philosophical.

[Name removed] is an [expletive] who [expletive]: Crudities of the latrine

In a 1950s survey of bathroom doodles, famed sexologist Alfred Kinsey found that men tend to draw more than women in the bathroom, especially about, well, sex. Were Kinsey alive and at Blair, he would have found the opposite. Lady Blazers are not just open about their sexuality: They'll have you read about their business while you're doing yours.

One choice graffito in the girls' 250s restroom sums up the point succinctly: It's a life-size rendering of male genitalia. Scratch that - larger than life-size. The drawing is clearly an assertion of sexual identity. On a nearby stall, a companion set of what seem to be collagen-inflated buttocks makes an appearance.

Conversely, a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy seems to reign in the boys' bathroom. Remarkably absent are the typical accusations of sexual deviancy and braggadocio that proliferate in cheap motels and cinema restrooms. Instead, much of the provocative language has been asexualized. The F-word is almost always an insult, not a deed; "Suck" an interjection, not an action.

Perhaps the privacy of a stall distracts from sexual ruminations, or maybe it is a sign that crude language is easing into everyday vocabulary. Either way, the boys' bathrooms are, in a sense, "cleaner."

PhilosophieeZz of MiNnd: Philosophical musings

The great Beatles once told us to "whisper words of wisdom" and "let it be." They could be the most insightful seven words ever spoken, but at the very least, it seems to be the mantra of the many budding gurus scrawling their pearls of wisdom on the bathroom stalls.

Beyond the cruder musings that adorn many a stall, there are plenty of profundities scribbled on the tiles. Instead of staring at the sneakers in the stall next to yours, try contemplating the meaning of life.

In the boys' stalls, the philosophy is mostly of the "street wisdom" variety, but the intellectual undercurrent is still evident. Consider the following: "Don't smash the windows, smash the system" or "[Expletive] the police and take the power back." According to Graffitiproject, a web site created by bathroom-graffiti enthusiasts Unity Stoakes and Ray Dolber, "scrawls on the wall are important not only for what they say, but also for what they say about the people, the environment and the culture where the graffiti exists." These exhortations, then, suggest a nascent spirit of rebellion among male Blazers.

Lady Blazers seem to have taken a more traditional approach to philosophy: Their bathrooms are full of references to spirituality. A girl on the third floor asks, "Buddhism? What is it?" and "Judaism? What is it?" on stalls. On the second floor, another wonders "WWJD?" Social studies teachers may be impressed to know that their students are applying what they've learned about world religions - onto stalls around the school, that is.

Next time you visit the latrine, stay a while, ignore the stink and read on longer - perhaps you'll leave with a more insightful view on life.

Posting for pride

For many Blazers, having a private moment with a pen in hand in public is something to commemorate. It seems some feel compelled to reaffirm their own existence by tagging the walls.

The tagging doesn't have to be malevolent. In several girls' bathrooms, the signature "SLC" makes a presence. Written in playful bubble letters, it doesn't seem like a gang tag. But what else could it be? Are the letters initials or an acronym? Does the tagger mourn the co-ed integration of Sarah Lawrence college? Or is she paying homage to the host city of the 2002 Winter Olympics?

While such markings can be mystifying, wielding the might of the pen can give some Blazers a sense of authority over property - even if it belongs to the school.

Tagging is an instinct that encompasses much more than the archetypal "_____ wuz here," says Richard Reisner, author of Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing. According to Reisner, graffiti dates back to our primitive ancestors: "Drawings of bison and deer found in European caves demonstrate prehistoric man and woman's need to proclaim their existence."

Bathroom banter: Call and response

"Welcome. DO UR bizness," reads the stall door of a third floor girls' bathroom. If only it were it that simple. In a way, latrinalia is the ultimate common denominator. Rich or poor, black or white: Everybody must heed the call of nature. In some cases, though, this common ground becomes a battleground - as graffiti showdowns cover the walls and toilet-paper dispensers.

Tucked into a panel on a wall in the much-frequented and much-fragranced 100s girls' bathroom is an ongoing "degrade and defend" conversation. "People, get a life," one girl provokes. "U first lol" another retorts. A forceful "I already have 1" is then followed by a "Not when you're writing on bathroom walls."

Three floors above in the girls' bathroom, a class war is taking place - think class pride, not class system. The graffiti are manifestations of the "'07" "'08" shouting matches that always seem to take over pep rallies. "'09, [expletive]" reads one side of the toilet paper apparatus. "Wanna Bee '07" retorts the other side. And down the middle, breaking up the fight, appears the voice of reason: "What's with all the cursing?? Do you guys need help? Is something bothering you? Remember, we '07 were once freshmen."

Well defaced, anonymous '07 pacifist. Well defaced.




Jeff Guo. Jeff has a very short attention span. He hopes this is not because he was dropped on his head as a baby, but then again, there's this odd flat spot near the top of his head... More »

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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