Reading the broken, pungent literature of the people is one of public life’s private pleasures. I refer to grafitti. Toilets bring out the urge for expression – for writers – and for comprehension. Even, or especially in foreign countries, opening a stall door to be greeted by densely composed, or scrawled script, of assertions sweeping or nitpicking quibbles, is like opening a King Tut’s tomb of previously hidden knowledge. A stall in a foreign country is an outpouring of souls one rarely has access to. If the country is a hard drinking one, of course one may still count on boozy outpourings, but the joy of the stall is one’s sense of solitary monopolization of all these ejaculations, with the time to peruse, see through, and finally get it. Or at least to get a sense of coming very close to something vital and real.
In a post office in Yibin, Sichuan, China, the mundane bathroom there was a closet of treasures. I squatted, staring intently at the messages 12 inches from my nose. One writer intrigued me. “You mother’s tits,” I slowly deciphered, “Are as. . . .something . . .as watermelons.” What a thought. “Her something water. . ..flows like. . .the Yangtze River.” I finally tottered stiffly out, blood returning to my feet, the mystery characters noted on a scrap of paper.
The stall is an oddly secret niche within the public world. Perhaps this is its draw for writers of all stripe: the space, like an ancient, offline internet, in which to propagate one’s thoughts, smear one’s lust like cum on the walls, or parry the ridiculous assertions of a previous writer about the genital condition of such and such ethnic group. All this can be done at will, like in a discussion chain spooling down very slowly in a chat room. As in a chat room, one does not meet the other people, thought the stall separates people by time, not by space as the net does. And this chat room stinks.
A few weeks ago I squatted in a stall in the Taipei bus station, and found politics and sex all over the place. The political graffiti was too advanced linguistically for me – or the writer’s hand was shaking with rage when he wrote it. But I made out another one: “These Taiwan Bus Company drivers are the best! I see them with their big juicy cocks and I come in here and jerk off. Feels so good.” I squat there, peeking at this other man’s lust, clear even through the curtain of language. It is a voyeuristic pleasure.
When wall compositions make me laugh I feel most satisfied; when they titillate me as well it is even better. In Columbia University's Schermerhorn’s 3rd floor bathroom, creative and other juices flow freely, especially in the stall next to the wall. It appears that plenty of men spend time there waiting for hookups, judging from the personal ads. After 5 pm I tend to steer clear of the 3rd floor bathroom; everyone seems jumpy, preoccupied, and uncertain over who is looking for what. Nothing ever happened to me like when my classmate R who was sitting on the can in Butler when a head popped out from under the partition. He jumped the rest of the way out of his pants.
My favorite composition from those stalls was, “I love spreading a chick’s cheeks and cumming on her asshole."
Another poster added, “And then licking it off is THE BOMB!” This addition engendered an awkward response to the effect of Yeah the cumming part rocks . . .but I don’t know about the rest. . .Even in bathroom stalls lines can be crossed. I could see vividly frozen in the words of that exchange the moment of awkwardness, the initial lustful fervor gone suddenly flat, the fart in the genteel parlor.
Besides the hymns to head or the peans to pussy of course is the aggression, the gay or Mexican or black bashing. Rarely is it interesting. Most commonly a person writes “Hung, 6’2” tough man, shaved balls, looking to suck uncut cock,” only to be bodychecked by an injunction to get AIDS and die. Rarely do they rise to the earthy rhythm of “Here I sit, Cheeks a flexin’, Giving birth, To another Texan.” Other formulaic oldies but goodies are “Here I sit, So downhearted, Tried to shit, But I only farted,” and the subversive declaration, “They paint these walls to hide my pen – The shithouse poet strikes again!” Once to this latter I added, “They say I’m dumb, Say I’m perverted, The shithouse poet won’t be diverted.” I checked eagerly in that stall for several weeks afterward, and was overjoyed when I saw another taker, albeit a little weak. “They want to make this a sterile booth, The shithouse poet will tell the truth.”
Most stall writings are fragments, however, shrieks or moans or sighs, ghostly fragments to be savored in one’s own ghostly times of being lost. The apogee or quintessence of stall writing is the enigmatic declaration or question. In New Haven I read with puzzlement, “Lizard, What the Fuck??” The question intrigued me, drew me in, but left me there in the essential emptiness of the painted and repainted space around the question. What had prompted this outcry in writing? Had Lizard ever heard the echo of that question, seated a moment only to see it there?
Last night I sat in a stall most oppressive, industrially researched and produced to resist all writing. To my front, right and left were metal surfaces. Behind me was ceramic tile. Nothing could adhere to it or penetrate it. There is nothing more oppressive than such surfaces, to me. I went in without any urge to write, but seeing those dully gleaming walls made me want to scribble something and stifled the urge at the same time, leaving me with a frustrated sense of powerlessness. I reached out and touched the door. My God, how would it be to be jailed within such walls? Not only is one confined, which is bad enough: one is also repelled. The wall is a shell hard enough to break any vestige of rebellious violence.
Of course in the face of such technological developments, New York youth have still found a way to leave their mark. It is called “scratchitti.” Isn’t the word a wonder of creativity? Scratchitti is a resort to a more brutal form of art. With grafitti, the appropriation of public space such as blank walls and subway cars blossomed into outrageous color. But it was time consuming. With the city’s concerted effort to scour each car every time it is sent in for maintenance, the impulse to dress these steel boxes in robes of paint has taken a hit. Scratchitti retreats from color, from time spent on masterpieces. Scratchitti is a digging into the material of the subway car itself in a way that cannot be stripped by acid. And it does not take much time.
My nephew of 9, Kellen, was enamored of the word and the act, scratchitti. A visitor to the city from Arizona last year, he hooked onto the word and babbled it left and right. He also dwelt on the wish to see a rat. In truth, scratchitti has its own beauty, not in the form of the calligraphy itself but in the soft luminescence of the tiny scratches scoured into the gleaming metal, like a grain in wood. Scratchitti for all the hard bite of its creation gives off a soft flowing light like corn floss. It demonstrates a new physical possibility of the metal itself through interaction with a cutting material. Cut, the metal bleeds a different light. For that reason, the scratchitti done on glass is not beautiful.
Perhaps scratchitti would work in that most oppressive stall at Zhongxiao Fuxing station. But I have no idea what the kids in New York use to make their mark. Probably just arock with a good inscribing point will do. How odd, an art based on granite cutting into steel. Doesn’t it seem primitive? Doesn’t it call to mind the stones of Palestinian kids pinging on the armor of Israeli tanks? How fitting it is, then, that the message that came into my mind in that stall last night was “Free Palestine.” Yes, I know it is irrelevant here, politically. And I know how ridiculous, how inflated, my pontificating over the stakes involved in one tiny act of vandalism. I have to laugh at myself, too, at the thought that Taiwanese likely would not catch the English name, Palestine. And after all this good thought. The struggle over there has no overtones here the way it does in New York, with the powerful Zionist establishment reaching out to join hands with America-first religionists in the heartland. And yet – there is a wish that fights against the idea of irrelevance. There is a desire that their struggle be revealed in universal principles, a desire that it be universalized.
The fact that Taiwan is a crucial colony of the states makes it a special place to incite critique, anger, talk. Taiwan, given its status of colony preserved from the jaws of China only thanks to America’s benificence, tends to be apolitical. In public, Taiwanese mimic the head-down attitude of the Taiwan government, which to be fair, has its hands full just trying to preserve a space for itself in the international arena. However, there are vast reservoirs of potential critique hidden away in Taiwan, just waiting for the faultline of its national fate to shift to explode into the open. The Taiwanese are as clearheaded as anyone in the world when it comes to discerning systemic injustices. Taiwan is like a man so preoccupied with balancing his fate between 2 of the world’s biggest thugs, he stores up an intimate knowledge of power relations in his very bones. But it is a knowledge scarcely ever vented. Taiwan listens with bated breath for the movements of the thugs, like a person afraid too much talking will trigger an avalanche. Another thing keeping Taiwan and the Taiwanese quiet is the opiate of relative material comfort. Air conditioning in summer is the drug that soothes. The hum of the air conditioner is a white noise muffling anything sharp.
So I will learn how to write “Free Palestine” in Chinese. I am an unpublished writer; the stall is the first step in self publishing. I will find a rock in the park nearby, and put it in my bag. And the nest time I catch a bus to Taipei I will head for the can in Zhongxiao Fuxing station (which, by the way, translates as Filiality and Renaissance Station) and throw one more tiny stone in the global struggle for Palestinian freedom. I will have to think of something more involved to actually explain to Taiwanese people why they should care about that struggle. But scratchitti is a good start, for me anyhow, scratchitti can hearten one in a symbolic way. The great thing about writing in a public toilet is that one has a captive audience – one shitter at a time.
Last year when I had just broken up with my fiancee, I decided to use the last remaining fellowship money and go to Mexico. It was typically foolish of me: trade 3 weeks of newness for 3 months of being broke. I took the bus all the way: Greyhound to the Mexican border and then Mexican buses further south. I had this idea to spread subversive cartoons in America’s heartland. I decided to photocopy some of Tom Tomorrow’s most biting comic strips against the Bush government and tape them up in stalls the whole way to the border. Tom Tomorrow is a text heavy comic, it is true, but men in stalls have nothing if not time, I reasoned. Unfortunately I left the photocopying until the last minute, and the last minute falling on Sunday, I couldn’t find a single working copy machine in my sleepy suburban town. So it never happened. I carried all those comic strips to Mexico with me and back. The problem with my plan, of course, was that in trying to exploit the fixed-readership potential of stalls, I was going to move to paper and tape. All a pissed-off reader or nonplussed janitor would have to do is reach out and tear it off the stall door. End of shithouse anti-Bush movement.
The beauty of grafitti is that, like the internet, the give and take of different people is physically linked together. People in stalls can try to efface a word or a message, but it is not easy. Ramon, for example, can scratch out his name as the one who likes dick and replace it with someone else’s, but it is usually possible to discern the name underneath. In any case, the beauty of the stall culture is that you can see the evidence of attack and counterattack, assertion and violent counter-editing, right there in the fierce scribble blacking out the name or phone number, and adding in another. There is a chaotic back and forth over space itself, and in space as well, with a provocative message spidering out into numerous spin-off messages, marker against pen against pencil, a hectic spiral of angers, lusts, even reasonings.
Cyberspace is, in content, every bit as vituperative and alive, but the form is sterile, material-less, out of reach. There is no touching cyber-space. People spit at each other in a controlled, sequential order. The medium, in other words, is a fixed form out of the writer’s physical reach. A net surfer cannot reach out and deface another person’s message and rewrite it. Nor can a stall writer reach out and write words that appear simultaneously in a thousand different far-flung stalls. The surfer’s words magically appear on a thousand screens, which is its beauty. . .and its disconnect from physicality. (perhaps this disembodiedness allows people to express more articulately) there si an impotence even in the potent internet. One can multiply and propagate one’s voice a million times, but at the cost of submitting to the cyber structure, at the cost of submitting to the cyber structure, at the cost of abstracting one’s own writing into the ether, away from one’s body, one’s hand/ the pleasure in a direct materiality and tactility is gone. One’s scream is multiplied enormously in the megaphone of the internet, but the huge voice that pours out the other end is typed text, silent, orderly in form, marching along into the past. The price of one’s message being made super-visible is the invisibility of one’s own bodily presence, one’s self. And surely, one’s self never boils down to just a message.
As for my own graffiti, it sticks to the political: free Palestine, usually, or something against Bush. One of my more angry moments produced “Israel: America’s dick to fuck the Middle East.” I copied that from an interview I read with a Pakistani intelligence service man saying Pakistan had been America’s condom in the fucking of the USSR in Afghanistan. If it seems discordant to be writing political graffiti next to “Ramon likes dick,” or “Greyhound is the donkey’s balls,” I would argue that politics and political anger exist precisely in the margins of American life. The Great Depression was the last time popular politics occupied center stage. The 60’s was an exception, it is true, but it was an exceptional exception, a one time explosion produced by many overlapping factors. It was an explosion that most people do not miss.
Since the Great Depression ended, and official patriotism and prosperity have become the twin pillars of mainstream media and politics, the real politics of anger and discontent has gone largely into the national subconscious. Fringe groups of all type operate somewhere out there, on the lower ends of the am radio spectrum, on college campuses, or in compounds in Idaho. There is a constant nibbling away at the mythical center, for the fact is, even a mythical needs real people support, so it is no surprise that establishment figures send coded messages out to all the angry people out there. Candidates visit Bob Jones University or a Mecha conference. They rely on such groups to an extent far out of proportion to their tiny presence in the mainstream. The mainstream is the designated place to be for senators and presidents to be, but it, like cyber space, is a disembodied realm. The talking head of the candidate is attached to the body of a Limbaugh, Buchanan, or Nader.
The fact that anger over Palestine’s fate never makes it to the TV news makes it, de facto, part of the political unconscious of the country – along, of course, with pro-Israel freaks in favor of ethnic cleansing. For me to ink anti-Sharon messages in the Greyhound bathroom in Topeka, Kansas, is only to fulfill the reality of my exclusion. I am challenging nothing, except perhaps the idea that graffiti itself is limited to stupid dolts with fucking and racism and racist fucking on their minds. I try in my little way to expand the medium. Look at how Limbaugh extended his medium, radio. Now his fringe anger directly impinges on the establishment. In the meantime, however, while the streets are yet pacified by the twin illusions of prosperity and patriotism, the stall is still a good place to vent, and to peek at others’ venting. One day, though, politics will come out of the stall. My fear, of course, is that everything else will come out of the stalls along with it: hate and ethnic cleansing and sexual aggression, along with the fight for justice.
I clearly remember as a 7th grader, penning “Disco Rules” on the tile above the urinals in more than one school bathroom. I snickered gleefully. I imagined other boys’ reactions of contempt. Those boys, I imagined, were the ones who wrote the names of cool rock groups: Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, names with lots of Z’s and V’s were most macho. Even then I was well aware that these groups formed a macho orthodoxy. I was profoundly insecure, and profoundly tired of the dull conformity I felt compelled to mouth. I will never forget the way Jeff Bartone, local bully, used to interrogate less tough kids on the bus. With a grin on his face, he’d say “Hey (name), what are your favorite groups?” The American dream of individual choice and preference was, in the hands of a middle school tyrant, a jeering weapon to reveal the losers among us and enforce conformity. (This early training is perhaps one reason that America’s freedom leads so easily to mass conformism) I very quickly began paying attention to the rankings of groups deemed cool, though it is doubtful most kids had ever actually listened to Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. “So, you like Air Supply?” he would ask, goading a sullen target, looking around at us with that grin of his. It is clear to me now that these bullies simply took their older brothers’ music as their own. Jethro Tull? Come on. It sounds positively quaint now. But its name had a metal aura back then, increased by the fact that no one had ever heard them except the select few.
Looking back I realize disco was a feminized music that turned men into women, and whites to blacks. I hit middle school in the Reagan years, when men were supposed to be men, not sing “more than a woman” in falsetto. The constant bantering about heavily macho, and white, rock groups, written on every notebook cover, was an expression of boys’ deep uncertainty turned into an obligatory performance. My delight in writing “disco rules” on the bathroom walls (I knew as little disco as rock) was the delight of a kid poking a hill of stinging ants with a stick while safely out of reach – to enjoy their scurrying fury.
To them, of course, writing Van Halen on a wall was an act of rebellion against the adult world. But to me, this “rebellion” of theirs was already an incipient orthodoxy and hegemony, so my own writing was a rebellion against a rebellion. I could not believe the non-macho pop world of California when I got there at college and listened to my roommate Mark’s collection of Yaz and Erasure. Then again, he went to private school. Maybe things were different there.
My brother Scott once told me, excitedly, “Hey, I think I saw your writing on a bathroom wall in Wichita, Kansas! It said, ‘Bush lies, people die’! When I saw it I was like, Did Brian go through here?” I thought and told him it could not have been me, because my trip to Mexico last year took me through Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas, not Kansas.
The rarest thing in toilet literature is poignancy. The truth is, bus stations and truck stop bathrooms are full of people who have no idea what the fuck they are doing, where they are going, or why. “Come all this way out too far Utah,” wrote one writer plaintively somewhere in the West, “And what for?” One can easily imagine that such a baring of the soul was quickly defaced with “loser!” or “go back to Hicksville!” in black marker. But by that time he was long gone, all the way to Utah, and staring at help wanted ads in the Salt Lake Tribune.
I should not overstate or romanticize the status of toilet graffiti as “subversive” or a “social unconscious.” Or if one considers it in this way, it is best to define the subconscious broadly as a realm of subversive longings – including explicit versions of dominant, free market norms of competitiveness and mutual elimination. Stalls are full of people cussing out, in writing, people they deem too weak. But who are these writers? Surely they are not the powers of our society. Surely they are not the stars, the editors, the upstanding. For such powerful figures have the luxury to live moral lives. Their status guaranteed by power, they can strike the pose of goodness in total safety. Just like our dreams, stalls are full not just of longings for an overturning of the system but for a chance to rule the system and stick one’s spurs into those below. Dominance and subversion roll about, like a man and a python locked together, in struggle, roiling the waters of a river – the river of social unconscious.