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The Art of Bathroom Graffiti: A Window Into Dawson Goers’ Lives

Melissa Jabrayan


Via Melissa Jabrayan

The thought of public restrooms conjures images of disgusting, rancid-smelling, bacteria-filled, poorly lit dumpsters but, contrary to popular belief, they can transform into brainstorming hubs for art and creativity. A brief scan of the stall walls in most of Dawson's restrooms is sufficient to notice graffiti etchings and, while it might strike us as silly, idiotic, or even disrespectful, it serves as a public canvas where Dawson students can scribble their interests and preoccupations. 

The most common comments written by these unknown graffiti artists are questions. Some of them are simple and playful, like “Why are all women’s bathrooms stinkier than men’s bathrooms?” to which one might wonder how they have been able to smell the men’s bathrooms’ air, or “How is yr day so far?” — alright, thanks for asking — and “Why is the gap between the wall and the stall so big…” which sheds light on an unresolved engineering error that fails to provide privacy in the stalls. I figured that since I was seeking graffiti, I might as well contribute, and so I wrote, “Who’s your favorite artist? Need song recs.” To my surprise, as I periodically returned to that same stall, each visit elicited additional responses. My question’s popularity is probably connected to students’ affinity to share artists they enjoy in the form of short notes like “yall should listen to Greta Van Fleet!” soon littering the stalls in a collective, yet anonymous discussion.

Other questions address serious topics, such as relationship advice: “Do you think it's a good idea to still be best friends with your ex? I've been friends with him for two years before we dated.” Seeing as the question had not been answered after a few visits, I took the liberty of responding with a resounding “NO.”

Sometimes, people offer unsolicited advice or inspiring words. Comments such as “His ‘too much’ is someone else’s ‘that’s all?’” or “Don’t text your ex” — this comment might be useful to the person who thinks it is fine to remain best friends with their ex — speak to how intimate and personal something as corny and indecent as graffiti in stalls can be.

In frequently visited places such as bathroom stalls, these messages — like small pick-me-ups on hard days — have the ability to function as honest pieces of insight in the hardships college students might face. Sentiments like “I’m in a toxic relationship with my education,” “I hate boys,” and “closeted lesbian :(” are exceptionally personal and may be the saving grace for students feeling alienated, isolated, or agonizing in the same situations. 

Students are not simply taking on the role of graffiti artists for its own sake. Individuals choose to partake in this art to express their emotions and be vulnerable in a public space while remaining anonymous. There might also be a cathartic element to the act of rebellion. While being punished on account of it is unlikely, it is an opportunity to break the rules of a system that sometimes allows for little freedom. 

Bathroom graffiti can take on different interpretations when observed from the perspective of men, women, and non-binary people. Culturally, women’s bathroom stalls have been a hideaway, a place to disassociate from the rest of the world and process emotions. When I shared the existence of bathroom graffiti with my male friend at Dawson, he was immediately confused. He asked me, “What do you mean ‘graffiti’ in the bathrooms?’” He did not recall seeing many of these drawings in the men’s bathroom or, at least, had not bothered giving them any particular attention. This may reflect on the contrast of bathroom experience with urinals occupying half of the mens’ restrooms or that men simply may not designate bathrooms as sanctuaries of peace and recollection where it is deemed fitting to exhibit emotional states and concerns. 

At any rate, bathrooms continue to be effective locations to encourage community building via graffiti. They offer a way for men, women, and non-binary people to breathe life into these spaces and share their pains and aches, laughs and distractions, advice and concerns. When I first began making a conscious effort to seek out these graffiti, I discovered a ragged-edged tally board categorizing uses people had made of the bathroom and, every time I returned, not only would new votes be cast, but new columns as well—what started as just “Piss, Dookie, Period, Vomit,” became a whole slew of categories and additions. The ever-expanding, community driven essence of bathroom stall graffiti serves as the catalysts of social bonding and are at the source of a banal, yet significant movement that allows all to engage in frivolous or serious conversations with people you might be accidentally elbowing while circulating between classes.


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