Bathroom art: Vandalism or self-expression?

If you’ve ever been inside a stall in a public restroom, particularly one inside an older building, chances are you’ve encountered some “bathroom art,” or handwritten graffiti.

Writing on the inside of bathroom stalls seems to be a popular form of self-expression. Whether a message from the do-gooder, offering kind words like “You’re beautiful,” the rebel, lashing out at an institution (“Fuck school!”) or the comedian, hoping to lighten the mood (“Dropping bombs on toiletville”), art experts and observers alike debate whether or not it should be considered vandalism or art.

Around the UC Davis campus, there are several bathrooms that have been “vandalized” with writing and drawings. The girls’ bathroom in Wellman Hall is home to dozens of bathroom hieroglyphics.

“Never drink a cup of coffee and eat a bowl of fiber cereal before class. Learn from my mistakes,” someone wrote.

In addition to humorous advice, some use the space to share quotes and ideas. One bathroom stall composer wrote:

“I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive so you might as well lie back and enjoy it. — Sam, From American Gods by Neil Gaiman.”

Others see the inner stall as a place to voice concerns about social justice. In reference to the recent issues concerning UC Davis police and Occupy protesters, someone wrote:

“Nov. 18 [does not equal] police brutality. It was just cops being cops. Don’t punish individuals, destroy institutions.”

First-year cell biology Major Richie Koenig said he is a self-professed bathroom artist, and he enjoys reading what other people write and draw.

“I’ve done it. It’s a great way to see how other people think. When you are in there alone, you can express yourself with no social pressure. It’s an honest view of the mind,” Koenig said.

Art history lecturer Hannah Sigur said that people may enjoy creating so-called “bathroom art” when they know their identities are concealed.

“People take pleasure in the anonymity of it. I think there is something transgressive in a person’s mind when they find themselves in a bathroom setting,” Sigur said. “Also, the setting of a bathroom gives people a chance to express thoughts that are more appropriate for a bathroom. Especially sexual matter.”

Custodial worker Elva Martinez said she hates to see that people have drawn in bathrooms.

“I feel mad. It’s a lot of work for us, and that shouldn’t be part of our job. We clean to make it look nice, and we shouldn’t have to wash away graffiti,” Martinez said.

Like Martinez, custodial worker Rosa Cortez said that she, too, is not a fan of bathroom art.

“I don’t like it! One day, someone put graffiti in the Segundo Services Building and we had to get it off. It was a mess,” Cortez said.

First-year animal biology major Victoria Espinoza had a horrible experience with bathroom graffiti when her number was written inside a men’s restroom.

“I received so many calls from guys trying to talk dirty, saying vulgar and derogatory things. I almost had to change my number. Luckily I was able to have it removed,” she said.

Though some might argue that the “art” is defacing public property, others might say that it can be used to uplift restroom patrons having a hard time. In response to someone writing about how they wish they could be thin and pretty, someone wrote:

“You don’t need to be thin. You’re already beautiful.”

Though first-year international relations major Nnedy Obiwuru would prefer the bathroom to be free of writing, she said there is a slight benefit to those who use the space to spread positivity.

“I’d rather it be clean, but seeing that someone has written ‘you’re beautiful’ forces you to think about it. So I guess it could be a good thing,” Obiwuru said.

For Sigur, bathroom sketches only qualify as art when the message is clear and meaningful.

“It would depend on what I’d see. It depends on whether the person who created the art had anything worthwhile to say, and how they said it. If you have to explain your art in a long paragraph, it fails. It should speak for itself,” Sigur said.

Though commonly found within the seclusion of a restroom stall, this type of expression is not exclusive to bathrooms. Desks, textbooks, and mirrors are also common targets for those looking for a public emotional outlet. Upon one of the exterior walls of Wellman Hall, someone wrote:

“Re-examine what you’ve been told. And dismiss that which offends your soul.”

While the school does not encourage or permit vandalism, there appears to be no simple way to police this activity, especially inside restrooms. So, within the confines of a bathroom stall, bathroom artists are likely to remain free to tell jokes, complement one another, vent and, eventually, use the toilet.

KELSEY SMOOT can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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