Taken from the ancient city of Pompeii

(In the basilica): Let everyone one in love come and see.  I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins.  If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?—Anonymous

 (On the walls of a tomb): Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria.  I would wish to become a signet ring for no more than an hour, so that I might give you kisses dispatched with your signature.—Anonymous

(House of Orpheus): I have buggered men—Anonymous

~

My name is written on a bathroom wall at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. I put it there. The words appear in blue highlighter (earlier attempts with a ballpoint pen were unsuccessful, the numbers and images wouldn’t take to the surface, not to mention the thinness of the marking, the lack of visibility). The image is the focal point of the otherwise unmarked wall—this stain, this unauthorized addition, commanding attention among the Muzak piped in through the speakers in the ceiling, the immaculate tile and faux-gold fixtures.

My name is written on a bathroom wall at an Oasis rest stop: highway overpass turned Mecca of convenience, souvenirs, greasy food: a necessary break from traffic, a place to stretch your legs while standing over eight lanes of interstate, spreading and distributing its passengers into the tributaries of suburbs across northern Illinois. The stall is constructed in metal sheets overlaid with a diamond pattern, making writing next to impossible, meticulously designed to obstruct this type of behavior. I keep at it long enough to make the words stick. It is beautiful: the reflective material holding the ghost of color; my design taking on the criss-cross characteristics of the uneven terrain, words illegible against the stainless steel finish.

My name is written in black, though sometimes green, sometimes both. Wherever I go I leave a trace: an image, a casual obscenity, a message to anyone. Lately, I’ve been fighting the desire to get increasingly personal, to write my email, my phone number, my home address.

~

I am collecting photos of my favorite latrinalia. The term, a shorthand for the study of graffiti etched onto bathroom walls, was coined by folklorist Allen Dundes when shithouse poetry didn’t quite encompass the content outside of verse or poetic form. The best among them are pre-meditated works: the type where the stall occupant has the foresight to bring a marker or other device, puts the necessary time into thought and composition. Think of the elaborate drawings that must have taken minutes to create: I’ve encountered intricate murals throughout the art buildings at the university I attend, Melville quotes next to Afroman lyrics in the English department restroom, the compulsion to draw or compose or argue politics unchanged as I venture across the campus and disciplines. Some phrases are written on the stall door or high on the wall: content not created while the creator is using the restroom, but composed before or after or even without ever using the facilities. Consider location, the increasing risk of being caught in the act: words above open area urinals or sinks, places where the writer could easily be spotted. Consider instrument: those among us who don’t have a writing utensil but actually scratch their words into paint. Such a serious commitment to the written word—even if the word is a poorly etched “SHIT” where the rounded curves of the S are constructed in straight lines and corners.

I usually stick to text: revision work or quotations from books or poems. Occasionally I go for anthropomorphization: a door handle mouth, a coat hanger turned into the nose of a poorly drawn face. If I do draw, it consists of a single image, the only thing I’m capable of sketching with any real consistency: the image of a cartoon snail. I’m trying to place it everywhere, hoping others pick up the design and begin using it themselves.

There’s value in these images and words, and in the unknown writers who make them. I get the feeling that these writers, like the art they are creating, have little chance of gaining any real recognition.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a case of famous latrinalia. Other than the “Here I Sit” variations, there isn’t a singular symbol for the genre, no Kilroy appearing inside countless airplane fuselages, no iconic Banksy and his more accepted street graffiti. Street grafitti brings up a different set of emotions because of its connection to gang territory and the defilement of larger, more communal spaces. Reactions are more forceful when the vandalism can be shared with a large number of people, when outrage or admiration can be accumulated into some kind of action: anti-graffiti alliances or a neighborhood watch, the ban on spray paint sales to minors that was easily circumvented in my teenage years.

But when the same image or message is encountered in the bathroom, in a brief moment of privacy in public, during the loneliness that comes when we’re most vulnerable, there’s no outlet for expressing disgust or amazement. Instead, your thoughts and responses resonate in the mind; the ideas are given a more serious consideration, a mounting head of steam. Or you release it: take to the wall, revise or augment, the art becoming communal—a vandalism of a vandalism. You are drawn into this pre-wiki conversation. What other writing has this kind of power?

~

In Dundes’ article, “Here I Sit—A Study of American Latrinalia,” he puzzles his way through the psychological motivations that could explain the craft: the author’s desire to participate in the taboo, both in the act of vandalism and the messages themselves, which often include subversive language or reference subversive acts. As the article progresses Dundes gets increasingly Freudian, suggesting a primitive smearing impulse from our anal psychosexual stages, meaning that we are losing filth and therefore must create our own to sustain homeostasis; that, in the case of men, there is an ever-increasing pregnancy envy, that our inability to produce life drives our masculine desires to always be producing, creating legacy, writing or drawing something that allows us to leave our mark or stain upon the world.

We want a space that appears to be clean, that we can pretend has not been used before. We like hygiene, cleanliness. But latrinalia reminds us that someone else has put this space to use in a way we don’t often discuss. It creates a trace of use, a history, a new space for publication and expression. It creates a space where we may never be alone, where our companions are unknowable.

A study of restrooms at an unnamed west coast university concludes that the main themes of latrinalia are sex, relationships and drugs.  More often than not the writing comes across as angry, confrontational. We know that thousands of people out there are so desperate to let out some kind of thought they must scrawl it on the side of a bathroom stall. Location matters, particularly to this kind of writing: the stall minimizes the risk of getting caught, a rare instance of public privacy, a crime that can be safely committed and widely noticed, which is to say that it’s pretty fucking great. Names are sometimes attached, taking away from the anonymity, the classic “X Wuz Here,” though there’s no possible way of knowing that X actually wrote anything. The anonymity of the act means it cannot be trusted and is therefore liberating. There’s no baggage connected to the work, no history or biography outside of what appears on the wall, no fact checking or calls for a second draft. The absence of authorship makes it democratic, somehow less offensive than it would be in a more public context. You can (and I would argue, should) write anything here.

~

My name is written on the walls of a Caribou Coffee, on the walls of a hundred coffee shops across the Midwest. All lined in tile—the smell of antiseptic cleaner, of roasted grounds.

~

I spent a significant amount of last summer writing researched articles on cosmetics and skin disease. Each article was written with a contractually obligated inviting tone, with clear and casual language that can be easily understood in a single reading, with sentences that are not overly long or riddled with clauses or unusual punctuation. These articles—the product of most of my writing time and creative energies—do not bear my name, nor the names of my fellow writers on the project, but are ascribed to a person who does not exist.

Ghostwriting requires a skewed sense of authorship. It allows us to disconnect from the words we compose, to attribute them to someone else, to no longer worry how the work reflects on us as authors or people. While David LeGault may know nothing about scabies, my alias John Barrymore certainly does.  In my case, the job allowed me certain liberties that I don’t encounter in my creative work: a disregard for the beauty of language and sentence structure, a specific set of topics and talking points to explore in a paint-by-numbers template, an editor to take care of the grammatical pitfalls I so often fall into. It was publication without pressure, a fictional persona inserted into the nonfiction form. What’s not to love?

Most writers I’ve questioned disdain the form: they say that authors writing trashy romance novels under pseudonyms lack integrity, that celebrity memoirs aren’t written so much as dictated. They don’t like that mediocre writing can gain more attention or acclaim based on a well-known “author’s” name. They don’t want to read three new Danielle Steele novels every year; they’d rather read a Tom Clancy novel than a novel from “Tom Clancy’s” series.

But I believe there’s more to it than that. Ghostwriting strikes at the author’s deepest insecurities: the writer feels threatened because it’s clear that what we believe to be a unique style or voice can easily be faked or emulated. That a good deal of writing can be broken down into formulaic patterns of sentence structure and organization. That, just maybe, our words are not as profound as we had hoped.

~

My name is written in the Masonic temple in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Such storied history, such lovely architecture! O, what it means to take my place in this impressive structure, this inner most sanctum!

~

Or maybe this is another case of me making everything about words and their necessary weight, me spending too much time thinking about nonfiction, its implications of truth and infallibility. Because all stories, even those based on fact, are sliced and shaped and structured out of the greater whole of reality. More simply, we live in a world made out of more than words, so how could words possibly represent its entirety? Heat can be described, but not felt, not on the page. A description puts an image in the mind, one that may even move and inspire, but it’s still an image, a reality that does not exist outside of the self. At best, our literature is a chipped-away imitation of the truth, a vandalism of sorts.

So when someone writes “I’m Gay!” on a wall, and another hand writes “Me too!” underneath it, can I believe these words, the world they inhabit? May I call this memoir? Fiction? Does it even matter?

All writing, especially nonfiction, calls to mind the avatar: a character representation, a constructed persona that (sometimes) approaches truth. It’s liberating, really, to understand there’s no way to represent every thought or memory. I can’t even adequately present all of my thoughts surrounding latrinalia. All the photos in the world couldn’t give an accurate account of the genre or of this narrator without omitting something from the frame. The persona is nothing more than a technique, a way to communicate a part of myself to you.

These issues don’t come up in fiction, at least not with the same type of intensity: as readers we allow our focus to shift from the realness (which we understand to be hopeless) to the story itself, to the beauty of language, to the ideas and characters. We may get caught up in a particular writer’s style or character voice, but we don’t require the same scrutiny or verifiable fact we ask for in nonfiction. We separate story from the person writing it.

If we want to better connect with our literature, we must separate the words from both person and persona, find truth in ideas and not their source, bask in the anonymous. And what better model for this than the bathroom wall?

Latrinalia is rare in that it exists completely outside of our typical definitions of genre: its truth-factor cannot be verified, would not pass any Wikipedia test of credibility, so it’s processed in the way that makes the most sense to its audience. The audience experiences a sense of joy that comes when interacting with the unknown writer: we could literally be connecting with anyone. We could be reading confessions, stories, or lies. Maybe this is crazy, but for me, there’s love in this potential relationship with everyone around me, the possibility of infinite kindred spirit.

~

 Amy’s phone number is (715) 790-6339, written on the wall of a Cenex gas station men’s room somewhere in the long stretch of highways crisscrossing northern Wisconsin. Here’s what we know: based on area code, Amy could conceivably live anywhere in the northern half of the state. We know Amy has a friend or enemy (presumably male) who wrote her name and number on the wall, unless of course she wrote it herself. We also know that when we call this number, it goes straight to voicemail, where a message tells us “Hey it’s Scott. Leave me a message,” then we hear a beep and quickly end the call. Here’s where we ask ourselves: Is this really Amy’s number? Did the writer give us the incorrect digits? Does Amy share a phone line? Is the whole thing a hoax? Is Amy Scott’s girlfriend? Wife? Daughter? Does Amy even exist?

My guess is that the number was written by one of Scott’s friends, trying to piss him off if and when anyone calls for Amy. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Amy changed her number and I’ve waited too long to call.  Maybe Scott is lonely, longs for the ringing of his telephone, and puts Amy’s name because more people will call for a woman. Maybe Scott feels constricted by who he is, by the choices he’s made or continues to make, creates new selves as a temporary escape. Maybe Amy is an alter ego, a persona or performance he likes to enact. Maybe Scott is into role reversals, gender ambiguity, something kinky. This is the mystery of the wall, the necessary disconnect between the written word and reality, the imagined possibilities more powerful than anything Scott or Amy or I could ever provide.

~

In a different realm of creation and legacy, new technologies are constantly emerging, impeding the efforts of potential latrinalia artists: specially engineered paints and polymers forming chemical bonds that don’t allow graffiti to dry to a surface; wall partitions overlaid with stainless steel diamond patterns that resist paint and scratching; chalkboards that offer a simple, erasable alternative to ink and wall. Imagine, as you read this, there are engineers at American Polymer, U.S. Coating Solutions, countless other businesses of patriotic chemistry, designing paints that seal away our porous walls! That make the ink of your Sharpie bead like a Rain-X’d windshield! And these innovations aren’t exclusive to the restroom. There are countless products designed to prohibit inappropriate use: I’m thinking of the thin strips of metal bolted to nearly every railing in my city’s streets and parks that prevent skateboarders from grinding the surface, the metal angles welded to the concrete under overpasses to discourage the homeless from sleeping in the relative cover.

It’s worth mentioning that all of these technologies exist to deny privilege or access, and in the case of latrinalia prevention, it may be actively preventing a person or entire subset of our culture from expressing opinion or any kind of communication to a larger audience. At its core, latrinalia is a form of self-publication: an expression of the powerless. Latrine artists express frustration, anger. They long to send a message, and do so anonymously because their names do not matter. To the world they are ghosts, and I worry what will happen if these voices speak no more.

I don’t think I need to worry, though. The performers of latrinalia are committed to further subversion. I recently encountered a chalkboard in a restroom where, rather than using the chalk, someone scratched the word FUCK directly into the granite, which must have taken a serious amount of time and effort. Perhaps the latrinaliast writes precisely because it’s not allowed, because of the power inherent in the act. Graffiti subscribes to that pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands mentality that we all occasionally possess. We like control, at least the illusion of it. We want to be part of a powerful minority, to mark our territory by repurposing the otherwise ignored wall. By being the first to mark a wall, we make it our own. By being the second, we challenge the authority of the first. This is probably the same reason we try to guess user passwords online, the same reason we climb over chain-link fences and through broken windows. The same reason I recently purchased a key for the switchless lights used in so many school buildings and shopping malls, the reason I sometimes can’t resist the urge to fill these spaces with darkness.

~

CHEAP SEX can be acquired by dialing (507) 401-6891, according to the second stall in the men’s room of the Eau Claire Travel Center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When I call, an operator tells me this number does not exist.

~

Or maybe latrinalia is a dying form: the powerless voice finding new outlets in Internet anonymity: the message board, the avatar, the ability to take on a persona, attached to a name that is not our own, and write whatever shit we want. Sites like 4chan and Wikipedia pride themselves on their democratic models: allowing anyone to include or modify their content anonymously, making every voice as powerful as the next, taking reputation out of the equation.

The online self is just another model of created persona, a username that becomes a person in itself, an identity with its own kind of reputation—our Wikipedia accounts becomes increasingly credible with every successful edit or revision; less scrutiny is placed on a user with a registered ID and profile. And even unnamed posters are tied to an IP address, leaving small bits of personhood and location that can be traced back with enough technology. Unlike latrinalia, we’re still held accountable for the things we say when we believe no one’s watching.

The Internet identity is more closely aligned with the nonfiction writer. Readers look to the writer (or the writer’s persona) for a sense of context; our narrator’s age, gender, race, religious background, and countless other traits influence our reading of a text, especially when it comes to memoir. It’s much easier for a registered Wikipedia user to make false edits after a few authentic ones, just like it’s easier for Margaret Jones to find an audience for a south-central L.A. gang memoir when they believe her to be a dark-skinned, Ebonics-writing member of the Bloods (she is none of these things). There’s a contract between the reader and the writer, though the writer is more aware of this fact. The nonfiction writer uses their persona to direct the audience, to take advantage of the reader’s expectations. This is why we get so upset with the false memoir: we put too much stock in the author’s authority, and we lose the value of the story being told.

~

An Incomplete List of Known Personas/Identities/Avatars:

David LeGault, Dave LeGault, David Arthur L, dleg, DL, DAL, electricorgan4, daaaaave, legaultd, lega0044, Livejournalmatt, Kid Shazam, {Wnt}Daaaaave, Techno Dave, Super Dave, Big Wave Dave, The Georgia Homeboy, Nomenclature, Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous, 3934984, Paul Legault, John, Kevin, Kristen, Sir, Professor, Current Resident, Tara, Mud Turtle, Lobes, The Weed Man, Crazy Charlie, Mr. LeGault, Anonymous, leggomyeggo, Guy, pixie_bubbles, yeahright@noway.com, 123 Fake Street, Sarah Siddons,  John Barrymore, Anonymous.

~

Even the best repellants leave ghosts on the wall.

~

My name is written so frequently that it begins losing meaning. Despite countless signatures and pleas, no one has ever called me back. I hoped that by sharing my information I could reach out to the anonymous audience, but no one believes or trusts the information enough to reach out to me.

Maybe this is why, despite my love of latrinalia, I still find myself writing essays like this, work attached to a name and contributor’s note. I hate myself for wanting my words to be taken more seriously—my need to be recognized makes this whole essay one big hypocritical mess. My name on a wall doesn’t have the same effect as it does on the page: For a good time, my number is (616) 204-7962. My address is 5226 Irving Avenue North/Minneapolis, MN/55430. My locker at the University of Minnesota field house is M-2111 and the locker combination is 38-16-26, my bike lock has remained for years on the factory pre-set – – – -. Giving this information here, where my words will (hopefully) be taken more seriously, may have some real-life repercussions depending on what you, dear reader, decide to do with it. I hope that you use it in the spirit of latrinalia: step into a different persona, one that cannot be traced back to you, and use that freedom to write something true without the fear of recognition. Perhaps by using my name, there’s the added bonus that I could some day come across it, discover things I never knew about myself.

~

The blank wall, this accumulation of paint. It’s geometrically perfect: square beside square, fine lines of grout trailing up to down and left to right, a grid pattern of white on white. Yesterday this space contained obscenities, my name and phone number, several manifestos. Now, this perfection surrounds us, consumes us, forces clean air into our lungs. Like a brand new car, the flawlessness is nearly overwhelming, how we try to protect that perfection for as long as possible, how even the littlest scratch or dent or dirt would free us all at once. Here, the world seems so simple, so full of order that we want to believe in it. But the world I know is not that simple. It is the opposite of this place: impossible to process, full of chaos, at times so disgusting that I can’t even breathe. But in that dirt and grime we find a certain understanding, one that we can help to create or revise, uniquely ours in the surrounding sea of white.

 


Latrinalia (graffiti written on public restroom walls) might seem an unlikely subject for an essay. However, through a sophisticated exploration of form – that of a fragmented narrative – as well as through the use of fine irony, the author tells a personal story while also seeking deeper meaning in society.
—Sue William Silverman, 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judge