The third of this four-part reflection series focuses on latrinalia (toilet graffiti) in public toilets, specifically Brighton’s Royal Pavilion Gardens.
As one of the few attended public facilities in Brighton & Hove, the toilets at Royal Pavilion Gardens were at the bottom of my list for having latrinalia-covered toilet cubicles. I was rather surprised, then, when I wandered in to find an array of graffitied doors. Unfortunately, the beauty of the Gardens themselves did not translate into the toilets they house. Holding my breath, I got snapping.
By definition, a toilet attendant is a cleaner who maintains and cleans the facilities and ensures that necessary items are kept well stocked. I felt as though there was a certain irony in this, since this particular toilet was the most vandalised and, quite frankly, the most pungent destination I encountered throughout the day – yet the only one with a designated member of staff occupying it. Upon my departure, I heard a mother ask her son: ‘are the men’s toilets as disgusting as the women’s?’. This made me smile – I wondered how anything could be as bad as what I had just experienced. This is not to say the attendant was not doing her job; I watched her don her marigolds and enter each cubicle with the expected amount of hesitation. But, of course, no toilet attendant can control the mess left behind, but can merely clean up what s/he can.
This brings me nicely to my focus for this particular reflection: latrinalia. Toilet graffiti is loaded with socio-political power, and it fascinates me. The notion of having a canvas where one can express what they feel honestly and entirely, with complete anonymity (depending on what they write), is not something that easily achieved anywhere else. Whether intoxicated or entirely sober, the toilet cubicle becomes a space of expression, away from judgemental eyes and censoring forces. This notion is exacerbated by the fact that this was in a women’s facility – I plan to explore feminist theory in this regard throughout the project itself.
Moving forward, Beck (2014) expertly summarises the latrinalia phenomenon:
What makes toilet graffiti special, and worthy of its own entire category, is the uniqueness of the space in which people are writing. Public bathrooms are weird places. There’s a tension to doing private activities in a public space, with only the flimsiest of boundaries hiding some of our culture’s biggest taboos—genitals and bodily functions. Hence all the scatological and sexual prose that latrinalia often consists of: People are just deriving inspiration from their surroundings.
Beck’s description of toilets as unique spaces is what I was trying to evoke in the previous paragraph; latrinalia is a private act carried out in a public place, similar to our bodily functions themselves. As Ferem (2007) argues, toilet stalls are perfect for opinions and expressions to be etched upon, since they are much safer and the person is less likely to get into trouble for it. Beck’s discussion of scatological and sexual prose is also interesting in this way; keep this in mind as we dissect the images I have captured.
I went into the facility a number of times throughout the day in order to observe several different cubicles. The first visit boasted a stall covered in writing that seemed to have been drawn on with paint, or perhaps a very thick pen. The writing featured a list of names traditionally associated with men, including ‘James’, ‘Tobias’, and ‘Isaac’. Other phrases included ‘I Love You’ and ‘I.P.❤’. A comparative study of men and women’s toilets by Pamela Leong showed that the latter were dominated by ‘supportive graffiti and relationship-oriented graffiti’ with an absence of insults. It was also found that 70.8% of latrinalia collected was carried out by women (The Hidden Culture, 2016).
More evident in the second and third images are references to sex, including phrases such as ‘If you fancy sex, just have it!’ and ‘Tony .H. is sex’. Now I don’t know who Tony H is, or what it means to ‘be sex’, but I do find these comments interesting from a feminist perspective. Discussing sex, from a women’s perspective, is still arguably taboo. As Bambi (2014) writes:
‘We are oppressed to speak about or express our sexuality. We are told that we have the freedom to do so, yet we are deemed less intelligent or classy if we do. Women are placed into two categories – classy and intelligent, or sexual and trashy.’
Does the toilet, then, become a place where we can speak and about express our sexuality in a way that we otherwise cannot? This seems likely. Moreover, although I’m yet to experience evidence of this myself, Leong also found that:
‘Female graffiti contained more scatological content than the men’s graffiti did. Such graffiti included explanations for what caused the artist to defecate (coffee, the campus dining service), references to flatulence, and the obvious: that they were currently on the commode and, in some cases, were in the process of defecating (“Sitting on the toilet Hahahah”)’
Although these images are not my favourite visually, I am constantly excited by the socio-political elements tied up within latrinalia and notions of privacy. I plan to go back to Royal Pavilion Gardens (on a weekday next time, weekends are far too busy) to capture some more pictures of latrinalia. Now my confidence is starting to increase, I feel I can produce higher quality images with clearer intentions and focal points.
Bambi, J. 2014. Sex: Why Still the Taboo for Women? Centrethought [online] Available at: https://centrethought.com/2014/09/29/sex-taboo-for-women/ [Last accessed 24 April 2018]
Beck, J. 2014. ‘Behind the Writing on the Stalls’ The Atlantic [online] Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/behind-the-writing-on-the-stalls/383016/ [Last accessed 24 April 2018]
Ferem, M. 2007. Bathroom Graffiti. New York: Mark Batty Publisher
Leong, P. 2015. ‘What the writing on the (bathroom) wall reveals about sex and culture’ The Conversation [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/what-the-writing-on-the-bathroom-wall-reveals-about-sex-and-culture-39986 [Last accessed 24 April 2018]