Smiths+: Unrestrained by print, we can present to you Pete’s article with extra photographs that Lysia took on her mission to document the toilet door philosophy of Goldsmiths.
Despite what they teach you at university, general common-sense beliefs in life often reflect the truth, and as far as public toilets go the universally held opinion that men’s lavatories are dank, stench-infused places certainly hits the mark, usually as a direct result of the patron’s failure to do so. A fitting environment then, for the most primal and often disturbing instincts of the male race to trickle out. I’m talking about the universal phenomenon of lavatorial graffiti. Being (relatively) ignorant to the domain of female toilets, I shall forego speculation into those sweet-smelling Arcadias. I have, however, amassed enough reluctant experience of the underworld that is the Gents to pour comment.
Mid urination, lift your eyes for a moment from the foaming, golden Styx and you will invariably see an artistic representation of a penis. I use the term artistically quite loosely. It is tempting to impute these genital monstrosities simply to the limits of male thought association, yet there does seem to be an almost Darwinian beauty to the parallelism of man’s capability to simultaneously hold his own penis with one hand and create an artistic replica with the other.
Cave paintings they may not be, but this phallic obsession is as old the hills. The Saxons felt it necessary to suggest for posterity that their virility knew no bounds, as any low flying aircraft over Dorchester will testify. The magnificent 180ft Cerne Abbas chalk hill figure is really nothing other than a cubicle scribble for people with too much time on their hands. These days, a marker pen on the wall is the only subconscious Freudian manifestation we can readily fit into out busy schedules. Perhaps it’s an ideological thing; the saturation of discourses on masculinity leads men to become uncomfortable with open, candid discussion of their bodies and size ratios. This then, would suggest that the inscriptions on toilet walls are an attempt at selfjustification, man’s effort to carry out a comparative study to establish if he is, in fact, normal. Either that or the opposite is true, and constitutes habitual self-aggrandisement.
Perhaps the penis symbol is the work of a single, particularly prolific ‘artist’. If that were the case, you’d have to applaud the endeavour. Maybe even an MBE for services to street art? Just when does graffiti become art anyway? Admittedly, some of it is actually pretty good. Is it art for art’s sake, or simply the manifestation of disaffected youth, bored to the point of being willing to risk life and limb on the railway to spray a wall? A few years ago, a government initiative was created to lend some legality to their practise by apportioning areas of urban decay for them to work their magic. This, predictably, resulted in vast areas of inner cities plastered with graffiti paint; the very same graffiti paint that contributed to the urban decay in the first place. Apart from nominating the theme, this achieved very little. I might be being a little harsh; after all, it’s not different to what Michelangelo did with the Sistine chapel. His sanctioned fresco is really a renaissance equivalent of a miscreant with a spray can approaching a wall behind Tesco.
Having had the good fortune to study at Goldsmiths, I have encountered an entirely different lavatorial experience. The penises are still there, of course, but are nestled alongside some hilarious and pseudo-philosophical nonsense. This varies from genuine attempts at toilet philosophy to the feverish ramblings of mind-rotted students fresh from a bout of hefty revision on political theory. ‘Foucault fucks freshers’ was a particular favourite of mine before the cleaning staff had the temerity to wipe from posterity that particularly poetic piece of rhetoric.
Finally, I read recently that various contributors have combined to inscribe an entire chapter of the first Harry Potter book onto a cubicle wall. Possibly the worst piece of criminal damage ever recorded, this act of defilement has not only gone unpunished but was actively encouraged. Given the wealth of tautologous volumes in the series, there is a risk that lavatories up and down the land may be overrun with Hermione and friends. This would be a huge shame and as a nation, we must not let such ephemeral cultural phenomena run roughshod over centuries of graffiti tradition.
Give me the penises any day.