Latrinalia - Learning From the Scrawls in the Bathroom


March 15, 2006 — -- It's the one private moment one has when out in public.

The visit to the latrine, the bathroom, the commode is a time for eureka moments, private thoughts, emptying of contents, and fixing of the unruly hair or smudged mascara as well as a time for many people to scrawl their deep thoughts on bathroom walls.

"It's a time when you are able to vent and be open," said Alex Kotch, a Brown University senior who put together a sound installation called "No one will see us."

The show is a culmination of two months of studying bathroom scrawls around his university campus. He enlisted some female friends to go to the women's bathrooms around campus and parts of Providence, R.I.

Kotch, a music concentrator at Brown, was first inspired when he looked around while using the men's bathroom at the Rockefeller Library last fall.

"I noticed a lot of provocative writings in there, and I went back and grabbed my notebook and took notes," Kotch said.

The installation includes a wide range of messages that run the gamut from crude to philosophical musings. Other items include "sex tips for inquiring froshes," appeals for advice, requests for dates, and personal interest surveys. Kotch described the installation as "worthy of the R rating."

The graffiti, read aloud by women and men in corners of a room, transforms the writing to a living installation, according to Kotch.

Bathroom-graffiti study or the study of Latrinalia -- a type of deliberately inscribed marking made by humans on bathroom or restroom walls -- has intrigued people for decades. And as with the study of anything, the Internet is providing sites to satisfy those wanting to look at bathroom poetry, art, and crude works of personal reflections.

"It can be seen as raw poetry," said New York University Creative Writiing professor Carole Song. "At it's best it is poetry mixed with art that can really capture a moment in time."

At Graffitiproject,, Unity Stoakes and Ray Dolber have created an outlet for bathroom-graffiti voyeurs everywhere.

The site contains images of graffiti from bathrooms all over the country.

"I have been watching and reading bathroom graffiti for years, and enjoying the cultural significance of what people are saying," Stoakes said.

Stoakes said the political humor during the Bush/Gore presidential election first caught his eye.

On his site, his manifesto reads: "The Bathroom Graffiti Project is a collaborative arts initiative with the goal of inspiring people everywhere to tag, shoot, and share the best bathroom graffiti from around the world."

"In public and private stalls everywhere, this medium continues to thrive as one of the most culturally interesting forms of communication, artistic expression and free speech that has ever existed. And it can be damn entertaining too."

That's right -- those 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."

A.W. Read, an American etymologist, started what may have been the first in-depth account of American bathroom graffiti.

On a trip through North America in 1928, he became interested in the large quantity of graffiti found while using a number of public restrooms. Inspired by the graffiti, the content and style, Read put together a glossary entitled "Lexical Evidence From Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary." He hoped to contribute to the study of colloquial linguistics.

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