Sometimes it’s fun to think about things seriously that might not be taken seriously by most people. If you’re one of those people who might think it absurd to think about the rhetoric of writings that are (probably justifiably) considered vandalism by most people, then you might not want to continue (although I hope you will). Caveat lector.

On occasion, I have to do something that many people shrink from: use a public restroom. They’re not very pretty (even when you use restrooms in retail stores – don’t even think about using one at a public place like a park unless they have immaculate groundskeepers), but I press on when circumstances are dire.

When using the aforementioned facilities, I observed what I’d noticed several times before in various restrooms: the graffiti etched with some sharp object into the toilet paper dispenser and wall of the bathroom stall. After my course this semester in writing theory and rhetoric, my mind is more attuned to the idea of different writing spaces, and so it occurred to me – “What sort of writing space does a bathroom stall make?”

In reflecting on this and many previous experiences in men’s bathrooms (my only point of reference – more on this later), I decided that there are three main categories of statements that are made in this medium:

  1. Profane/obscene statements, e.g. “F*** you”.
  2. Hateful/incendiary statements, usually with references to some hate group like the KKK.
  3. Religious statements, e.g. “Jesus saves”*, “Jesus loves you”.

The motivation for making statements in the first two categories strikes me as rather obvious: the author(s) wish to evoke some ire in some unknown person who might meander into the stall. A deeper reason is probably rebellion: such statements go against the grain of social norms, and uttering taboo statements gives a thrill to those who speak them merely because they are culturally off-limits, as it were. The third category (which is far less common) exists presumably to counter the previous two by conscientious bystanders who wish to enter the dialogue as dissenters to the other authors.

As for why these messages are written in this medium, a site called detroit rhetoric responds as such:

I tell my students all the time that bathroom graffiti is some of the most socially significant writing out there. They stare back in disbelief. But think about it. There are exchanges of personal information. There is the giving of advice. There are statements of philosophy as well as of religious belief. And, yes, there are even people looking for a good time. A lot of stuff going on. A lot of uses to which words are being put in bathrooms across the globe. Those uses indicate something of the value and significance of words in our lives at our most primal moments.

I mean, what is it that compels people to write while they are using the bathroom? What thoughts so press for expression they can’t wait until we are through with one of our most human of activities?

What indeed. It barely makes any sense to me, except insofar as it is a public space that the author can be guaranteed will be seen by a captive audience. To me, this writing space isn’t so much “primal” or expressive as it is advantageous for someone who wants their writing to be given attention.

In talking with my wife about this, though, another consideration of this rhetoric became obvious. When I told her about these main categories, she gave me her different perspective of women’s restrooms:

  1. Professions of love or romantic feelings, e.g. “Jenny + Brian 4vr”.
  2. Vengeful statements, e.g. “Jenny is a b****” or “Jenny is a whore” (sometimes even with Jenny’s phone number written below – but probably not the ubiquitous 867-5309!).
  3. Religious statements, as above.

The commonality of religious statements doesn’t surprise me (and it wouldn’t surprise me either if this trend was less common outside the Midwest or other regions that have large numbers of evangelicals), again as a response to the other statements. (My guess is that some concerned soul out there thought that there should be some good messages to outweigh the bad, even though the messages in women’s restrooms aren’t nearly as provocative, in my opinion.)

What hit me was the obvious gender bias (and along fairly stereotypical lines). Women (presumably) writing for a (presumably) female audience delivered messages that expressed female rage (the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” mentality) and female love (let’s face it, what post-pubescent man would write a declaration of love? I’d venture to guess that sort of guy is rare). On the other hand, you have men (again presumably) writing for a masculine audience about issues of hatred (with the inexorable topic of violence intertwined) and obscenity (which of course is slanted toward – although not limited to – men).

Again, I would be interested to see how these observations obtain – or fail – under different circumstances, especially in urban settings and different geographic regions. The fact that there is such a disparity between the sexes makes this writing space an interesting one, even if (to make a gross understatement, pardon the pun) it is lacking in prestige.

*One of my favorite nerdy jokes was actually carved in one of these stalls by two authors with this line: the first writing “Jesus saves” and the second adding “and takes half damage”. (Of course, this joke, while quite nerdy, is bad theology. But nevertheless!)