Political potty talk

Bathroom walls reflect political discourse
Friday, October 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:12 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Washington University in St. Louis is not the only Missouri college hosting a presidential debate this fall. As the Nov. 2 election date draws near, partisan bickering has found an unusual forum here at MU: the bathroom walls.

Privy-poets have long vandalized university bathrooms with vulgar remarks and crude artwork. Keeping up with the times, some graffitists are now using restroom walls to pooh-pooh this year’s presidential candidates.

“Flush the Johns — Kerry + Edwards,” wrote one word artist in the third-floor men’s room at MU’s Ellis Library.

“Bush lies = 1,007 U.S. deaths,” reads another inscription found in a second-floor restroom in MU’s Arts and Sciences Building.

Such potty-politics are becoming widespread at MU.

An informal inspection of restrooms on campus revealed dozens of political debates raging in the bathroom stalls, with the vast majority of the writing coming from the men’s restrooms.

“Since going to the bathroom is a taboo activity to begin with, it seems to bring out the taboo side in other ways. Even the act of writing on the wall is taboo.”

Gilbert Youmans, MU linguist,

About restroom wall graffiti

But so far, the lavatory mudslinging seems to be limited to the hollowed stalls of academia.

More than 20 bathrooms in Columbia businesses showed no signs of political graffiti. Similar surveys at Columbia College and Stephens College also revealed no such artwork.

Much of the restroom debate at MU centers on the war in Iraq.

“How many people would you order dead for your friends’ interests?” questions one graffitist on the first floor of MU’s Middlebush Hall.

One war supporter wrote this message on the toilet paper dispenser in the basement of Ellis Library: “Keep Bush in office or watch more civilians die. Sure soldiers are dieing 2 but when you join the service you know what it could mean. Support R Troops.”

Senior history and political science major Josh Sewell is an active participant in bathroom debates. He said boredom is what motivates him and others to engage in politics on bathroom walls in MU’s engineering buildings.

“If you put it there, people generally have time to mull it over and respond,” he said.

Sewell, 23, said he inscribes casualty totals from the war in Iraq to spark conversation.

“I wrote the casualty total on one wall and when I came back a week later, the whole wall was covered in writing,” he said.

But apparently, not all graffitists understand the need for political restroom rhetoric.

Just below one political dialogue in the first-floor restroom of MU’s Fine Arts Building, one person questioned: “Who sits on the (toilet) & writes about politics?”

Similarly, in another stall, one writer responded to a batch of pro-Kerry propaganda with this bit of political commentary: “Bush campaigns with Arnold, Giuliani & McCain. Kerry campaigns on bathroom walls. Maybe that’s why Bush has an unstoppable lead going into the debates & Kerry is done just like Michael Dukakis was in ’88.”

Lavatory lecturers each have unique styles of arguing that, in some ways, mirror traditional debates.

The more civilized participants conscientiously post their views and draw arrows to connect them with other writings. Hostile debaters shout over other people’s comments with the loud voice of a permanent marker.

In the third-floor men’s room in Ellis Library, one person used a green marker to turn around several anti-Bush statements, in one case changing “Bush = Tyrant” to “Bush = Leader.”

But, as with other bathroom graffiti, much of the political commentary makes use of profanity or other offensive comments.

MU linguist Gilbert Youmans said bathroom walls are fertile ground for taboo conversations. Because bathroom conversations are between people of the same sex, the writers are more comfortable using language considered to be taboo. The appeal of taboo language increases when the conversation is taking place in a bathroom stall.

“Since going to the bathroom is a taboo activity to begin with, it seems to bring out the taboo side in other ways,” Youmans said. “Even the act of writing on the wall is taboo.”

Phil Shocklee, MU’s associate director of campus facilities, said the university’s custodial staff had not reported a general increase in graffiti on campus, but said he wasn’t surprised by the political graffiti.

“You know, we get graffiti from time to time and we just clean it up,” Shocklee said.

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