Decoding the graffiti on pub bathroom walls

“I’m in love with my friend, and I’m not sorry.” “Join a union.” “Dogs should be able to vote.” “ABORTION RIGHTS.” “Don’t trust Midwest emo men!”

As The Guardian reports, these are all scribbles found in the women’s restrooms at Sheffield’s traditional Rutland Arms, a yellow-bricked pub. Grey-haired residents mix with blue-haired students in this dependable and warm place, where the cheapest pint costs £3.30.

Its restroom stalls are entirely covered with graffiti, just like so many pubs around the nation. The walls, ceilings, and doors are all covered. Sprawling proclamations of women’s empowerment intersect with confessions of self-harm. This network of enigmatic relationships is both endearing and reassuring, as well as ominous and spectral. The male restrooms are similarly decorated, with indistinguishable handwriting in every color of the rainbow next to introspective statements.

Pub loos are both public and private spaces, so while it’s unlikely that someone will be caught doing graffiti, it’s quite likely that their work will be noticed. Scholars refer to markings produced in public restrooms as latrinalia. For centuries, individuals have been fascinated by this topic. Although American folklorist Alan Dundes first used the term in his 1966 essay, Here I Sit. Scatological graffiti was also found in Pompeii’s latrines.

Numerous theories have been proposed as to why we add these scribbles in the first place. These range from social identity theorists’ suggestion that it serves to accentuate stereotypical gender characteristics in segregated bathrooms to psychoanalytic interpretations of toilet graffiti as a form of “phallic expression.” Numerous research on latrinalia from China, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Canada, Cuba, and other countries have examined the graffiti found in university restrooms.

High theories aside, though, there is certainly something to be said about being in a confined space and expressing yourself as inappropriately or as vulnerably as you like.

“In any period of history, there’s a need to leave a mark—an utterance—and to have a sense that people can hear you,” says Richard Clay, professor of digital cultures at Newcastle University, who wrote and presented the documentary A Brief History of Graffiti. “A toilet cubicle is a space where you can get this slightly transgressive utterance, which is often dressed up in humour.”

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Pub restrooms are very unique places, if we set aside the bodily aspect of it all. People can graffiti there with confidence since it’s a unique case of a place that is both public and private, increasing the likelihood that their work will be noticed rather than being discovered. When a place chooses to accept its graffiti, a dialogue that is frequently political arises.

For Clay, these conversations are manifestations of the underground culture that has grown up around the venue: “They have their own self-selecting group who more or less share similar values and likes and music tastes, so you get a snapshot into a moment in the life of a specific public interest.”

The pictures might be funny, poignant, or scary. You can find a lot of graffiti regarding tattoo artists, global warming, and landlords in north-east London.

A note on the wall of The Crooked Billet, a popular pub for young professionals and creatives in the gentrified Clapton neighborhood, says, “Please consider a vegan lifestyle for the animals and our planet… thank you.” The word “vegan” is crossed out, and “bacon” is written in its place with a thick black marker. The next line was written in a light ballpoint pen, “Girl shut up, I bet you do coke.”

The majority of studies on latrinalia have usually compared graffiti in male and female restrooms because mixed-gender restrooms have only become more prevalent in the past ten years. Scribbles in women’s restrooms tend to be more vulnerable, discuss relationships, and demonstrate solidarity, whereas men are more likely to write derogatory messages and draw pictures.

James A. Green noted the following in his 2003 analysis of 723 inscriptions from the central library of the University of Otago in New Zealand: “Females discussed body image more than males did. There was also a difference in focus: females listed their height and weight, whereas males listed their penis size.” That same paper also claimed that the most dominant topics in male toilets were politics and tax, while inscriptions in female toilets tended to ask for personal advice and, bleakly, “discussed what exact act constitutes rape.”

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After twenty years, what has changed? It’s challenging to be certain. There isn’t much written about graffiti in mixed-gender cubicles, but it’s obvious that fresh discussions are happening. “Gender segregated toilets, why?” reads an all-caps statement posted in the women’s restroom of the Dog House in Edinburgh.

Men tend to scribble offensive words and draw pictures in women’s restrooms, whereas women’s restroom scribbles express vulnerability and solidarity.

In The Ventoux, a buzzy pub in Edinburgh with fish tanks on the walls and bicycles on the ceiling, someone writes in the female loos: “Trans women are women.” Another pen scribbles out the last “wo”, turning the word to “men”, before someone definitively rewrites “wo” in thick red marker. Across town in Marchmont, in The Argyle and Cellar Bar, a door in the women’s says: “A transgender person peed in this bathroom, and nothing bad happened… we are not your scapegoats, and we are never going away.”

The reason why most venues will monitor their graffiti is due to hate speech. Co-owner and general manager of the Rutland Arms Chris Bamford adds, “There’s a few things that have surprised us by being transphobic or something like that, in a pub that’s very supportive.” “If anything is offensive, we’ll get rid.”

In addition to exposing some of the most divisive topics in our culture, toilet graffiti also has a melancholic undertone. In the female restrooms, topics such as depression, loneliness, and surviving sexual assault are frequently discussed. A notice alerting people to potential neighborhood predators is posted in the Art Bar, which is close to Dundee’s art college. However, there might also be a certain comfort in witnessing strangers interacting with their community—think of them as unidentified friends—interacting with them.

Jodie, 25, from Edinburgh, was having a night at a dive club in east London when she noticed graffiti in a run-down toilet. The question “Are you having a good night?” was splayed over two columns labeled “Yes” and “No,” with supportive remarks all around it. Twenty or more tally marks were made in each of the two columns; some were scratched, and some were written in various pen or lipstick colors.

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“Throughout the night, you saw different tally marks being added, and it made you feel like you were part of the night in a broader way than just the friends you’d come with, in this community of contributors,” Jodie says. “What was important was that the comments were all quite varied, so there were lots of people who were ultimately on the same night out but with different experiences. It made you feel like whatever you were feeling that night was valid.” Later that night, Jodie went back to the same cubicle with eyeliner in hand. “I marked the ‘Yes’ column, but I remember thinking that I had been on nights out where I haven’t been having such a good time, and seeing that [the ‘No’ column] would have really made me feel happier or less alone.”

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It becomes more difficult to identify latrinalia in the UK. Venues are getting facelifts and any signs of damage are being quickly painted over as gentrification infiltrates more and more areas of cities. And the spaces themselves are diminishing. Over 150 bars closed across England and Wales in the first three months of 2023 as a result of rising energy costs, while the nightclub industry saw a 12% fall in sales last year, according to new information from the Night Time Industries Association.

The graffiti adorning the walls of our restrooms reveals the degree of reverence these areas hold at night. We are driven to connect in these uncomfortable, stench-filled cubicles for some reason, even though we can hide behind keyboards and find groups online. Maybe because latrinalia is so anonymous and unmediated, it feels authentically appropriate. Or perhaps it’s because talking to strangers can be consoling in its solidarity. Loo graffiti, in whatever form it takes, is like a love letter to the venues themselves, even if it only consists of a penis drawing.