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The Writing on the (Bathroom) Wall

It’s been immortalized in song, it’s been railed against by Barney Fife and it turns out there’s a term for posting it in bathrooms – latrinalia, or graffiti found in latrines. Frequent latrinalist Ryan, an IU junior double majoring in English and Spanish said it’s an easy world to be drawn into.

“Something about sitting on the toilet just makes you feel really witty,” Ryan said. “Reading comments such as…well I don’t know if I can even say some of the comments. You know. You’ve read it before. And you read it and you think, ‘well, I could do better,’ or ‘I could one up that.’”

In a women’s bathroom on the first floor of Indiana University’s Ballantine Hall is a conversation. A message scrawled in black ink reads “Isn’t it funny? Aren’t we all closer here?” The responses are varied. Two respondents called the writer names and one wrote “we are not closer, get a grip”. But what stands out is a kinder message, written in metallic gold ink, which responds to the detractors, saying “find some kindness, compassion and insight.”

Gold pen writer continued, posting missives in two stalls in a second bathroom in the building which seemed to seek emotional healing. One said, in part, “I am going to get healthy…be content with my life…follow my dreams”. Indiana University Folklore Professor John McDowell said seeking this kind of catharsis through latrinalia is not uncommon…

“Release? Yes, definitely.” McDowell said. “ A sense of excitement, maybe? Possibly a little sense of naughtiness. So I think there’s some energy in it. I think there is, as I have been saying, an escape from the confines of goodness.”

McDowell said that often wall-writers respond to one another debating topics and giving advice so that the stall shows evidence of a conversation.

“Somebody has written something and somebody comes along and responds to it and it’s not unusual to get a whole chain of responses,” McDowell said.

Ryan says returning to a washroom to find a response to one’s writing is the highest form of flattery.

“That’s a huge compliment when someone writes back,” Ryan said. “If you write something and you don’t get a response you just feel kind of worthless, like why’d I do that? It has no effect on these people who are obviously bored enough to read it, but not interested enough to respond.”

IU English Education major Ashlyn Theodore, who said she regularly notices latrinailia, said sometimes she feels the urge to add her own, but has never actually written on a bathroom wall.

“I would never write anything personal about my life just out of fear that somebody would know that I’d written it or just that I would go back to that bathroom and see that somebody had written something mean and I would be afraid of that,” Theodore explained.

Despite her fear, Theodore said she understands why other students might decide to write.

“There was one girl that said something about rape and I was kind of like oh that’s, you know , that’s not something you should write on the bathroom walls,” Theodore said. “But then I thought, well you know, it’s kind of a place where you can say whatever you want…I think it’s just kind of like a masked way to say what you want without having to worry about people physically getting in your face and saying oh I don’t agree with that at all because nobody knows who wrote what.”

McDowell said negative responses are built into the genre which, in its simplest form, is a kind of vandalism, but he said latrinailia can be much more than that—turning into a long conversation involving several contributors and offering an outlet that is not available anywhere else.

“People are looking for avenues of escape. They’re looking for ways to step out of the, if you wish, the kind of straight jacket that society asks us to wear,” McDowell said. “They’re looking for opportunities to be creative, to express themselves freely and maybe even to transgress, dare I say it, in the playful mood, to transgress some of the norms of society.”

For some, scrawling on restroom walls is a chance to explore a difficult topic. For others, like Ballantine Hall’s gold pen-wielding author, it’s a chance to affirm beliefs. To academics, it’s an historical recording, at least until it’s painted over. But McDowell says a fresh coat of paint is bittersweet. Yes, some history has been erased, but budding writers have been provided a new space in which to begin the next chapter.

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