In 1966, the late UC Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes coined the term “latrinalia” to refer to restroom graffiti in his book “Here I Sit — A Study of American Latrinalia.” Dundes posited strange theories on the psychological motivations behind latrinalia, including male pregnancy envy and an infantile desire to artistically smear feces.
Restroom graffiti may be connected to an age-old desire to leave a record of one’s existence.
Restroom stalls provide a captive audience for these anonymous records. The privacy afforded by restrooms makes this form of expression accessible to even the most reserved and timid of people.
Latrinalia ranges from the base to the profound and may even capture the spirit of the times. Its only curators are custodians with varying tolerances for these fleeting pieces. Its patrons have nothing better to do when they encounter it.
Whether viewers take offense or delight in what they see, latrinalia does not require anyone’s approval.
Restroom graffiti falls under provision 3 of the UAA Student Code of Conduct, “Damage or Destruction of Property.” Punishments range from written warnings to uncompensated labor to expulsion. Though it is a challenge for UAA to catch these closet offenders, it has happened.
In spring 2011 graffiti pieces similar in style began cropping up in large numbers in men’s bathrooms and outdoor areas around campus. Many of the pieces, illustrated with black marker, featured words like “think,” “gender” and “equality,” and slogans like “for a moment, the lie becomes the truth” and “think before you persecute” (with “evolve” superimposed).
By April 2011, the University Police Department filed four police reports and catalogued 26 separate instances of graffiti in connection with the case. Students who believed they had seen the suspect helped UPD put together a description.
When graffiti at Cuddy Hall and Sally Monserud Hall were reported in close succession to one another, police were able to use camera footage of the suspect passing between the two buildings to obtain identification.
Cleanup of the mass latrinalia lasted 169.5 hours and cost $10,181.35. The student responsible met with Michael Votava, Student Conduct and Ethical Development director, to plead his case.
Votava said the student told him he was “working in the direction of creating a message that he could portray.”
According to Votava, the student, who no longer attends UAA, took responsibility for 22 of 26 pieces, was suspended from UAA and was ordered to pay $8,000 in restitution.
UAA latrinalia is not as abundant as it was in spring 2011, but it is still an issue. The men’s restrooms contain a few dull and uninspired works like “HI,” “4:20,” “OBAMA” with an ‘x’ through it, a backward swastika and “Do you ever wish you could die?”
Many of the pieces are faint etchings, barely visible under several coats of paint. As soon as graffiti is discovered, UPD is made aware and in most cases UAA’s custodial contractor, American Building Maintenance, takes care of removal shortly thereafter. UAA Facilities’ policy is to cordon off the restroom when the material is deemed offensive.
“It’s not so bad to where it’s a problem. The majority of the graffiti I’ve seen has been in or around the Fine Arts Building,” freshman Skyler Palmer said.
“We are on top of it. The stuff doesn’t last long,” said UAA Custodial Contract Supervisor Pete Garcia.
According to UAA Director of Maintenance and Operations Tom Sternberg, $1,496 was spent combating campus latrinalia in spring 2012. Of six graffiti removal work orders, two were for women’s restrooms. The most expensive jobs were $476 for work on the second floor Engineering men’s handicapped stall and $488 for the first floor Rasmuson Hall women’s restroom.
“When I see graffiti, it’s more like middle school stuff. I have never seen actual “graffiti” at UAA,” sophomore Cheyenne Del Vecchio said.
Restroom graffiti has been studied since long before the term “latrinalia” gained popularity. In Allen Walker Read’s 1935 glossary of “incredibly obscene” words and phrases collected in United States and Canadian restrooms, he calls it “folk epigraphy.”
The idea of private water closets within public restrooms didn’t really take off until Victorian Europe with increasing classist sensibilities to excretory and biological functions.
“Even at this early stage in the public restroom’s history, there was already a sense among the elite classes that they were increasingly places of ill repute, morally, hygienically and even criminally,” Nathan Taylor writes in his 2010 thesis “On the Poiesis of Latrinalia.”
Although washroom class divisions in this country don’t go much further than first class and coach these days, the criminal element still lives on through latrinalia.