An Explanation for Bathroom Graffiti

I open the door to the boys restroom located on the upper right side of Franklin’s main building, adjacent to the cafeteria. The smells of musty body odor hit me upon my second step inside the restroom. I look around and notice no one is in here, which relieves me since I won’t have to do my inquiry about bathroom graffiti next to someone defecating. I walk towards the stall closest to the wall, shoes sticking to the floor. Opening the stall door and stepping inside, I immediately notice an unflushed toilet, yellow liquid in the corner, and walls covered with vastly different colored drawings and words. This isn’t someone who’s writing on these bathroom stalls, it’s a group of individuals. I inspect the largest of the writings which were written towards the middle of the right wall, in what I assume to be a green pilot fat marker. It reads “A.C.A.B (All Cops Are Bastards)! F*** THE KKK!” Directly next to that is a drawing of a penis.

Graffiti in Franklin’s restrooms has been one of the main reasons that bathrooms have been locked. I think the majority of students at Franklin know the irritating feeling of pushing a bathroom door open only to feel the blunt stiffness of a locked door. It has gotten to the point where each time I am about to open the door to a restroom, I find myself reciting a lucky charm in hopes that it will be open. Going to the bathroom shouldn’t feel like playing a game at a casino. I understand how irritating the locking of restrooms is for students, but I also empathize with the endless repainting and cleaning that janitorial staff has to do daily. So what is there to do? No amount of school spirit is going to stop bathroom graffiti. Administrators can’t do anything about it unless they 1) catch a student in the act or 2) put cameras in the restroom which is not only super illegal but very invasive, inappropriate, and creepy. Increasing punishments of students found tagging at Franklin may feel like a way to decrease the amount of vandalism the school would face, but it would not address the underlying reason that many students’ graffiti. What can we do other than try to understand why someone would tag the walls of a restroom?

A 2016 study done by Dallas University found that taggers (graffiti artists) paint to relieve stress and boredom, and gain recollection for their artistic abilities. This study focused on street artists. What makes bathroom graffiti unique, and worthy of its own category “is the uniqueness of the space in which people are writing. 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,’’ according to a 2014 article by Julie Beck of The Atlantic. What differentiates street graffiti from bathroom graffiti is the content of what’s being put up. Phrases either political, satirical, motivational, or offensive are not uncommon to see in restrooms while on the street you are more likely to view tags and murals.

Taking into account the setting and audience of whose reading helps give perspective as to what types of things could be written inside of restrooms. The reasoning is apparent as “you have a staggeringly diverse audience. Many different races, classes, all walks of life, but it’s completely confined to a single gender. So it suddenly lets gender-specific issues emerge” writes Nicholas Matthews, the lead author on a 2012 study about bathroom graffiti. Alfred Kinsey, who founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, found that 86 percent of writings done in men’s bathrooms were erotic in nature, while in women’s restrooms it was 25 percent. What exactly makes people want to write on walls in the first place?

I decided the best way to understand the mentality of a bathroom tagger was to interview one. Their identity is going to remain unsolicited as I don’t want to incriminate them. I asked what they usually write/draw on the walls of the bathroom. “It really depends. When I want to vent, I write about what’s on my mind. Other times I could’ve thought of a really funny joke or word and put it down. I’m not going to lie, a lot of the time I’m drawing penises. I don’t even have anything to write so I draw instead. For me it comes down to my state of mind at the moment I’m going to tag.” I then asked why they graffiti the bathroom. “I know it’s vandalism but in reality I know it’s not harming anyone. Bathroom graffiti for me is like the comment section on [a] YouTube video.” I asked them to elaborate. “You know when you’re watching a video on YouTube and you scroll to the bottom and read each comment. Each one of those comments contains a bit of someone’s interpretation of what they just watched. I relate it to bathroom graffiti because many people use these stall walls to express themselves while at high school. There’s also a large majority of those who don’t express themselves and just draw penises too. Both are fine in my opinion. It really just adds character to this school. Franklin’s interior reminds me of a hospital sometimes. The blankness of each classroom and the long hallways creep me out but I’m not going to bust out tagging classroom walls. I choose the restroom to add my art to because there’s a low risk of me getting caught and a bathroom reaches a larger audience of people.”

Although this one interview cannot explain every individual’s reasoning for vandalizing bathroom walls, it does offer an explanation for an issue I hear all too often at Franklin. Franklin’s interior holds no character or comfortability. Many feel the walls of Franklin High School are “too blank” and cause a type of dissociation with the schools community. Many compare and contrast Franklin’s interior to that of Cleveland’s. Many of Cleveland’s classrooms are cluttered, with papers of student’s artwork or motivational posters covering the majority of classroom walls, which Cleveland student Carmel Harrison says “makes the school more homely.” Cleveland’s hallways are also painted a light yellow compared to Franklin’s all white walls (except the basement bathroom located by SS-009 which is painted a dark grey.) Franklin student Gerryson Hilliard says the dark grey interior of the basement bathroom “feels like an improvement from the previous all white bathroom.”

Students come in the doors of high school as starry eyed freshmen hoping their middle school experiences will guide them through the intimidating high school hallways of teenage-hood. I view bathroom graffiti as a thing that will always be a reality at Franklin High School in the same way that students will continue to skip class or dance too close at dances.  It’s always been a low risk, anonymous, and accessible way for any individual to express themselves. Bathroom graffiti, a thing that always has appeared across America’s many restrooms and will always continue to appear.

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