Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in North Park. Not only because it is wrapped in that certain kind of funkiness that I love; but because it also has a tiny Russian restaurant that has the motherload of bathroom graffiti.
Let me explain.
I’ve been interested in the study of Latrinalia (the word for bathroom graffiti coined by the late Alan Dundes) ever since the day I saw a perfectly drawn penis on a bathroom stall in an old department store. An economy of expressive lines formed the shape and the circumcised tip was executed exquisitely. I felt a peculiar sense of loss when the penis disappeared due to the store’s renovation the facilities.
Shortly after the penis was gone, I heard the calling to become a foot soldier in the army of nomads who document bathroom-sage wisdom. As I traveled far and wide in search of that illusive commode masterpiece, my quest led me to note some interesting observations: First, economic status, social, regional and cultural differences influence these offerings to the porcelain gods; second, the musings found in the ladies’ rooms are almost always relationship-oriented as opposed to the men’s facilities that boast political and somewhat egotistical statements; and last, sexual commentary sprinkle the stalls of both genders.
Although most people would like to think that Latrinalia is a recent art form; this mode of pure self-expression is nothing new. I read somewhere that in the Chauvet Cave in the south of France, the Paleolithic dudes created a work of art with pigments carbon dated to around 25,000 BCE. The illustration is an intricately rendered vagina that surrounds a part of the cave where red clay had seeped through. Fortunately for posterity, it was not painted over by the Paleolithic bathroom police.
Unfortunately for our own progeny, a current-day potty Picasso’s pièce de résistance created with a Sharpie marker during a solitary moment of contemplation is looked upon as vandalism and quickly removed.
My expeditions have unearthed some interesting specimens. Take, for instance, the elaborate equations, words of T.S. Eliot and long philosophical and political treatises that I found in a men’s room on the University of California, Berkeley campus (no, I’m not going to reveal how I got away with being in there.). Or the lovelorn passage edited with proofreader’s marks neatly tucked in the margins that I found in a stall at a publishing house in Texas. Then there was the irate message by someone in a pay toilet in New York City that read, “This better be a hell of shit for 25 cents.”
I can present an entire thesis solely on the particular drawing of hearts–like in “Mary (heart) John.”
Back in my old neighborhood, which was mostly Italian, they drew hearts with jagged rips where the arrow violently pierced the surface. Drops of blood were commonly shown dripping from the tip of the arrow. It was a passionate, over-the-top kind of heart, full of emotion.
In Texas, the illustrated arrows sport feathers, and hearts look more like three-dimensional jelly beans. And of course, nothing in the Lone Star State goes without some representation of the Lone Star inserted somewhere.
In Florida, most of the arrows I saw were either placidly lying on top or hidden behind the hearts. Guess Floridians are too hot or tired for a good ripping arrow.
I don’t personally add anything to the graffiti due to an early childhood trauma I suffered when I unintentionally created public art.
I won a chalk statue of the Blessed Mother at one of the Catholic festivals held in our South Philadelphia neighborhood. Being a fidgety kid, I started tapping the statue on the bricks outside my Aunt Lena’s row house while talking to one of my cousins. When I turned my eyes away from my cousin and towards the wall, I discovered that the tapping was leaving little marks. I curiously pushed one of the marks a bit further and began making lines.
One thing led to another, and before I knew it, Mother Mary and I began to publicly profess my undying love for Paulie Mastroantonio on the wall (including many hearts with wild, ripping and bloody arrows). It didn’t take long for the entire head of the statue to disappear–worn down by my dramatic, unconscious and lengthy dissertation on life, love and Paulie. After I realized what I had done, and fearful that I would burn in hell forever; I promised all the saints I would never write on another wall.
Then I moved to southern California. I figured this just might be the best fertile ground I could find for some inspiring nuggets to add to my collection. I started in Los Angeles, where I found a lot of political and spiritual messages peppered with some wonderful art and advice on life–a gritty, sort of earthy communication from the streets–both inspirational and entertaining.
A flash of insight penned beneath a shelf supported by two glass religious-icon candles told one person’s relationship anguish: “Fuck bad relationships & dysfunctional people. Cut them out of your life to make room for inspiring souls.” Or this piece from a coffee-house in Santa Monica: “God help the pretentious man who swaythes himself in worthiless projects but bless he who realized his own spirituality.” A bright, brushy, Buddha-like drawing with rays coming out of the head accompanied the latter.
Settling in San Diego presented me with one of the biggest multi-media “head” challenges since the penis-drawing epiphany. I discovered that this area is severely lacking in Latrinalia. To find anything at all, I had to visit places not fit for a plumber…or a human for that matter.
Eventually, in my darkest hour, salvation came by way of being hired by a local university. Things began to look up. One lucky day at work, in a ladies’ room far from my office, I stumbled upon a few literary regurgitations and a drawing of an alien with the message, “We are not alone.” I got down on my knees (with my camera) in thanks. I knew at that moment, the Zeus of the graffiti gods would take me to the promised land of urban scrawl.
Back to North Park and the Russian restaurant…
My son found this little gem of an eatery; and as part of my Mother’s Day gift, escorted me through its gates to nirvana. It was the Holy Grail. As the French pearly doors slowly opened before me, The sight of graffiti heaven enraptured my senses. I believe angels draped in toilet paper were singing.
The proprietors had not only encouraged the patrons to leave their marks in the loo, but supported depositing them in the entire establishment! A bonanza of thought-provoking passages splattered the walls like honey bees on the windshield of a speeding car.
My heart began to race. I felt faint. It was all too much. I began indiscriminately snapping photos everywhere. With no place to download, I didn’t want my camera to run out of memory before hitting the john–which, by the way, turned out to fulfill my wildest dreams. Along with the graffiti, clippings and posters in both English and Russian hung on the walls. Words exploded with orgasmic force; and after a long, mind-blowing session of picture and note taking, I felt I needed a cigarette–if I smoked.
By the way, I should also mention that the food in this restaurant, the Pomegranate, is delicious!